Short Story: AuralAgent

AuralAgent: Rdy?

FitWix: Yes

That was all they’d ever needed. The moment the response went through, the op had begun.

In the frenzy that followed, neither was sure what was happening. Only once it was over could they have known what they were doing. It was simply too automatic: combined muscle-memory and focus.

In the moment, Aural knew only the swift motion of her body as it vaulted a concrete barrier. Her sneakers slapped asphalt, then sprinted for the doorway ahead. The building stood as any uncaring stone formation but with an undeniably sinister lean. It seemed the core of the place was so corrupt, even the very architects had found pleasure in malicious, contrarian angles, utilitarian minimalism, and drab monochromes.

Aural was different.

Like so many others in the world, AuralAgent and FitWix were fighting for their freedom. True, neither were physically chained nor bound, their lives were no less constrained. Information, like water, needed to flow cleanly and liberally. Above all, it needed to flow freely and for all.

It didn’t.

Aural flitted through the door. Wix guided her via a comm-implant. “Seven doors to the left, there’ll be a break in the hall. Take a left.”

She did. Careful of the darkness that had stirred no-one thus far. It would soon enough. An entire building rose overhead with innumerable bodies ready to rectify any perceived problem. She rounded the corner.

“Hallway juts right.” She followed it. He continued, “At the end of the hall, take the stairwell to the fourth floor.”

She was through the stairwell door when the first signs of commotion rose behind her. Night workers were shambling from their stupor, groping, grunting their way forward: Zombies drawn to the source of their work’s interruption rather than brains.

“Thirty seconds,” Wix said.

Aural passed the third floor, doubled her speed. The hack wouldn’t last that long. She knew it. Wix knew it. Thirty-seconds was their best estimate, but too many people were onto it now. So long as she made the fourth floor though, it didn’t matter.

Her legs went double time. Suppressed mania from ten years of track and field unleashed itself. Equally as long outrunning service agents, dodging COINTEL, Mercs, Hunters, and beat-cops funneled the mania through the adrenal regulators she’d developed. The end-result was extreme capacity for focus, no matter the circumstances.

Kind of had to be, when the penance for failure was something worse than death.

Aural burst through the fourth floor just as lights flickered on overhead. Even before “Time” came through the comm, the fluorescent fixtures had regrown their strength quickly. She passed along narrow corridors broken by closed-door offices around two large, central rooms.

“You only have access to the North server-room,” Wix reminded. “Once you’re in, pull what you need, then switch the privileges to South server-access.”

By the time he’d finished, she was in. The door shut behind her on a large room cluttered with data racks and terminals. Pristine draperies of bundled cabling poured from the ceilings, tell-tales of such unholy rooms that existed as fashion statements, rather than as altars to that most holy: information.

Such power, squandered and neglected. Aural hated it. Machine-space no corp deserved.

She streaked along an outer row, down abreast lines of server racks to one in particular. A terminal flicked out and her fingers went to work. All the fury of a postdigital child at war fueled her. The stab of keys was her battle-drum, their beating savage. The terminal screen flashed white-on-black text. Commands flowered into processes and calculations. Rocket-fueled bars flashed beneath skipping text-dumps.

All at once, it stopped.

She was reading something. 4-1-8 repeating in her head. Then, movement began again: Slower. Punctuating silences with mechanical frenzy. She checked her watch, set it to twenty seconds, hit “Enter”.

The system was cycling, the authorization switching over. The system itself reset instantly, but it took time for all the checks to go through the thousands of drives, leaving a golden window of thirty-or-so seconds where her stolen ID had both Server rooms’ privileges. If the system had worked otherwise, Aural would’ve had no chance. Not even with Wix on remote.

But fools came in all shapes and sizes, con-men too. One had sold the other a security system without telling them how to run it, its pros and cons. It was equivalent to building a chain-link fence and expecting privacy and enclosure. Never gonna’ happen.

“One for the Angels,” Serling would’ve said. “Just another mark,” the con-man said.

Aural knew the type, couldn’t begrudge ‘em. “Even Hawking fucked around on his wives.” Thing was, someone like her would’ve just used that as an in to fuck Hawking’s wife. So, usually, the message of “don’t be a cock,” was lost regardless of its destination.

Someone like her. But not her.

It could never have been her way. She accepted that. She lived with that. Her way was confined to duality, the day and night. Shadow and not. Like a hag living as a maiden beneath a glamour. It mattered not why, when the time came to burn her alive. Just that she burn. Gods forbid if that formerly-fair-maiden, now burned-alive-hag, had been what kept the pox away.

What’d it matter? They cursed themselves no less when it came, were no less dead, no more deserving of spite for having learned of their mistakes in it.

But Aural was the Hag beneath the glamour. Deceptive, and dangerously so. Truth was, Aural was plain, but good enough looking to disguise the rot in her soul. That was what made her truly monstrous. She knew it, accepted it. Why not? Not like it was going to change. Didn’t matter all the rot came from the gangrene of guardianship. She was the product of an upbringing that fought for what felt right and it had tainted her.

Forever.

She double checked her watch’s timer, grabbed a drive from bay 418 on her way out, then strolled to the next server room.

“Making good time,” Wix acknowledged.

She’d chosen him to plan the op because he’d do it right. Shift changes, lunch-breaks. That was how he thought: like a wage-slave. Former one, anyhow. He knew the ins of a corp-system, especially if that corp happened to be waging a shadow war against… well, everyone– and he knew how best to exploit those ins. Aural was simply skilled enough to risk her throat doing it.

She was under no delusions. Death would be the least of offenses against her if she were caught by anyone. A specific few would seize any opportunity to turn the public on her. Whomever was unleashed directly would be maneuvered into parading her withering bones about until growing bored and throwing her to what few wolves yet remained.

No amount of connections would change that, political or otherwise.

She found the last terminal, hacked it to locate the data-bay she sought. Moments later, she was out of the server room, door hissing shut in a huff of conditioned air. The lights were back on in the building’s corridors, along with their security cameras. Her face tilted downward, obscuring her features: her clothing the only thing out of place on security cams. Didn’t matter. By the time anyone could move against her she was out of the building, skirting darkness for the getaway.

The box-truck was running down the alleyway, steam pouring from its tail-pipe into the cold air. The door was visibly unlatched, a single strand of light glowing from a dim source within.

Aural was in, pulled up by two pairs of hands: Wix’s half-mutilated face taught with effort, the other Zu’s tight with fury. The kid looked scrawny, barely looked able to withstand a stiff wind, but was rooted when he pulled.

Deception. Good.

Such details were necessary in a good crew. You couldn’t plan ops without knowing how every operative would react. That’s why breaking up a winning team was suicide, and adding to it, worse. Principles of American Life disseminated worldwide along the worldly-pipes: what Aural’s ilk called the Net. Mostly too, disseminated by Aural’s ilk.

The truck was rolling when the doors shut again. Aural handed the drives off to Wit. His one, wrinkled eye drew up with a half-smile like Two-Face at a bank vault. A hiss of “Shit!” emanated from the truck’s cock-pit, CanUHLynn was reporting in on time.

Something was different. Spitzu’s voice was rumbling quietly. He called her forward, “Aural, man, get up here.”

She was there in an instant, reflexes and guts ready. All the same, nothing could’ve prepared her: A small tablet computer, acting as entertainment, was propped up and velcroed to a console in the dash. On it, a video replaying at the press of Zu’s finger.

A news-vid cut in, an image of a man Aural knew entirely too well. The rest of, too, through her. It would’ve been hard not to, given his associations.

The vid played again, Anchor to one side. “– to Former President Hubert Langley, whom sources say, “passed away in his sleep” last night according to his wife and former First Lady, Barbara. A press-release says–”

Mom? Dad? Her first two thoughts.

The third was the plummeting in her stomach. Weights on her shoulders and the vertiginous feeling of reality collapsing in 3D tunnel-vision accompanied it. Wix and Zu steadied her. Lynn’s hand grounded her, its grip strained on Aural’s as the other wrenched the wheel back and forth to disappear them.

“Laura?” Lynn echoed quietly.

The use of her name ripped her back. Laura Langley was AuralAgent again– at least, in part. The other part was moving slowly toward the rear of the truck.

“I have to call my mom, my dad just died.”

It was a dumb thing to say, she knew. They’d all just learned it together. Still, it seemed integral to accepting things. They let her go without word or ridicule, but each one feeling weight in their chests.

Not exactly the victory party she was hoping for.

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Poetry-Thing Thursday: Abyssal Stares

Verging on a precipice,
gazing into a chasm,
an abyss staring back,
vile and black.

There sits a madness,
inside each man,
woman,
child:
animals.
We are long gone in soul.
We are at war for our world.
Yet the only blood shed,
is that, which from tears,
we cannot help but weep.

Millennia have come,
and may again go,
but what are we,
if devoid of our soul?

We live yet not die,
breathe but not sigh,
hover but shan’t fly.

Whilst all around us,
there is hope of conceit,
we are undead,
our species defeat,
sealed in the abyss,
swirling ‘neath our feet.

Poetry-Thing Thursday: Death Genus

Lie to me,
about the future’s culmination.
Speak the words,
of endless exultation.
Then inject me,
with Death’s overt-stimulation.

‘Cause I am,
running out of words.
And you have,
betrayed all the herds,
of woman and man,
and set fire to the birds.

There will be,
forever no more singing.
Sounds of fire,
forever to be ringing,
’cause our fate,
time is ever-bringing.

If I had,
perhaps one more life,
to get along with,
all of this strife,
Perhaps I’d learn,
to take away your knife.

But you have,
buried it within me.
And the blood,
is pooling I can see.
My life will fade,
soon just like we.

Collapsed to my knees
I beg your forgiveness,
for having failed,
to show you more than this,
but I understand,
more than am remiss.

So much has,
come and gone between us,
that any distance,
feels like Earth to Venus.
So inject me,
with a dose of Death-Genus

Short Story: Born Twice

Floodlights fell crosswise through rain, dulled to gray. The buildings and sidewalks, equally gray, formed a narrow corridor of misery. She traversed it alone, following an empty road slick with tears. Allie supposed as much, anyhow.

It was fitting, after all.

She’d hardly known her father, knew him less now death had exposed… him.

It was hard to explain why things were so dark. So cold. She knew all too well they were; the slump of disappointment, the drag-along feet of grief and wounds.

Rain soaked her raised hoodie to the bone. The only thing saving her her from ragged trembling was the overlong coat hanging open along her. Between that, her denim, and luck, the rain was held at-bay– if only outside.

Inside, Allie was a wreck.

Her father’s lovewas a cold, neglected wound festered bysilence. At that, he was mute. He’d have been as dead as stone, too,were he not begrudgingly filled with blood. He was heartless; aspetrified as an archaeologist’s first trilobyte.

That was what she’d known. Always. There was good reason for it, too.

She ambled through the gray wet, remembering her art project. Handmade. She’d waited weeks for it to return from the kiln. The whole time begging and pleading with any powers that be it hadn’t had an air bubble in it. Those time-bombs utterly destroyed every other ceramics piece she’d ever made.

This time, she’d guarded against it, meticulously kneading the clay. She repeated the process past hand-cramps. She wrung them out after one, expertly-crafted coffee mug. When it returned unharmed, and she gained access to the ceramic paints, she took greater care in coating and glazing it than anyone before her.

She sprinted home with it in both hands, bursting through the door to show her mother and father. She reached the latter first, beaming at the mug in her hands. Her father’s reply was an unceremonious grunt.

He focused back on his tablet of paper, kept writing. Not even a breath of pride or congratulations. Not a thought toward her beyond contempt for interruption,begrudging tolerance of presence. That was her father, exemplified.

She meandered between two, gray warehouses toward a lot a half-kim ahead.

It was like riding a tunnel o’ love raft alone, along drained out pool. The feeling was utter desolation; something once-sacred, now desecrated. She couldn’t help it enveloping her. Not with the the myriad of gray tainting her surroundings.

Until recently, she’d have felt her wounds entirely unfair.

In many ways, they were. Her father had never shown feelings toward her, but only by virtue of never showing any. She knew by her mother’s word he loved her, was simply atrocious at showing it. For along time, Allie hadn’t believed that. She knew it differently now, but knew she couldn’t have.

Not then.

She’d come home in tears, for one reason or another, met with the same reaction; indifference, stony silence, muteness. The memory she returned to time and again still stung with her even now, years later. Her father’s reaction, however framed differently after his death, made her utterly certain of his inability to feel.

Yet she was wrong.

This time, soaked in tears and rain as she was now in the alley. Like now, her heart broken. Justanother, crappy weekend. For all but Allie, whom had learned to emulate her father’s lack of emotion in all but the worsttimes. The epitome of human indecency, of teen angst. In essence, it was exemplary of all the worst aspects of human behavior. All in one moment of hormonal, teenage confusion.

She’d sat down to lunch with a friend. Another appeared, vid in-hand of Allie’s long time boyfriend making it with another girl. And going all the way at that. After so long, so much, it was crushing. Mostly, it was utterly humiliating.

The entire school had seen him with another girl. Before her. At least if it’d been them, she’d have been secure in the knowledge they were devoted.

Butanother girlwith less morals than a sea-slug, and a test-tube baby-face left in its first tube too long. Worse; one, lopsided breast beside another in a bra two-sizes too small and wrapped in less fashion sense thana half-decayed corpse.Even in the gray, Allie still felt the sting. How beyond-humiliatingit really was.

In retrospect, that was probably why she’d run out of school, ditching half the day.

She came bursting her front door, finding her father once more occupied. She was in shambles, emotionally, physically– she’d been soaked through from the pouring rain. She had nothing with her, not her pack, not her purse. If she hadn’t been wearing her shoes, she’d have left them too.

And all her father could say when she arrived home was, “You’re home early.”

At least, if he’d been angry, scolding, it would’ve been an emotion– something to contend with. Instead, it was the same, thoughtless lack of emotion that led to the video; to her being cast off for some pinched-face slag-sucker.

She fled for the bathroom, hiding until well after her mother returned and deduced her state.

Perhaps if she’d known then what she knew now, she might’ve handled things differently. Then again, could she have known then what she knew now, he would have. Unfortunately, her age and innocence meant she couldn’t know, wouldn’t be allowed to for years to come.

When that time finally came, he ensured she understood thoroughly.

His words rang in her head as if still being uttered. In that roundabout way sound goes on vibrating forever, she decided, they were.

Her mother had passed her a note from her father after his funeral, told her to read it alone and tell no-one of its contents or existence. She further instructed that afterward it be destroyed. She opened the letter, found a lone address with instructions including, “Go alone.”

She followed the letter’s request, if only for the sake of playing her final role as dutiful daughter. She found the warehouses, made her way into the one she’d only now left behind. Recalling her entrance as she slid into her mother’s car, the words echoed in her head with the fresh memory they were forming.

The warehouse’s door locked behind her. Innocently. The place was deceptive, looking much like any other warehouse outside but inside, clean and sterile. It was a hospital, condensed into a large, multi-room space.

There, in an office, her father spoke a final time.

He uttered a truth so radical it altered her world, her memories. One that tainted them with the hints of gray one at seeing things as they were; the loss behind the scenes; the tragedies, losses, sacrifices missed and made.

She found her way in as per instruction. There, she sat before a single computer monitor lit. Her father’s face appeared, more haggard and tired than ever. The distinct hint of pain in his eyes, something she’d never before seen but knew regardless.

“Allison,” he said with an eerily new warmth. “If you’re here, I am gone. You have to know what is at stake. The danger you’re in.”

Allie would’ve laughed, but her father’s usual frozen stone had become liquid warmth.

“You must understand why, after all of these years, it has been so important you never become attached to me. Why I have been so cold.”

He was visibly pained by thought.

“Allison, you were born much earlier than you believe. The first two years of your life caused you endless pain that only worsened over time.”

Allie could only wonder what he was on about.

“You do not remember, because we– Iremoved it from your memories.” He raised a hand as if to stop her from speaking, thinking too far ahead. “What matters is your body was slowly but surely failing. Three years old, and with only weeks to live, your body was killing itself with seizures. Bouts of inexplicable pain so horrible you became catatonic for days afterward.”

Allie fought to understand, to remember, but couldn’t. Torn between her father’s words and her own supposedly lost memories, she could only watch, hope to understand.

“One particularly bad episode left you catatonic for a week. You didn’t speak, eat, or move. You couldn’t. You were withering because of it. So, we… put you on ice.”

She understood now, but didn’t entirely believe him; a creature so unlike her father, yet wearing his skin. She’d been caught off-guard by the whole thing, but even if the purposes felt clearer she had her skepticism. Her father all but erased any room for her doubt.

Simply by remaining incapable of argument.

“The pain, we later learned, was caused by a degenerative neural disease. It’s not dissimilar to Multiple Sclerosis but has the distinct difference of causing attacks of nerve degeneration. These attacks were responsible for your catatonic episodes. They were killing you.

“Unfortunately, knowing so little of the disease meant knowing of no way to fix you.”

She glanced around at the empty office, as if hearing foreign voices’ echoing their forever-resonance on eternally elderly sound-waves. They filled the gaps of credence in his story, preempting his major revelation as if to make it less impossible, more believable.

“I could not afford to lose you, Allison. I loved you– love you– even if I dare not show it.” He heaved a terrible sigh. Reality weighted his chest, expelling his air supply. “So I did the only thing a I could to ensure I would not lose you.

“Your mother will confirm this. She was there every step. Before, through every episode and treatment. After, through your rebirth. Even so, we both felt it would be best you heard this from me:

“You were not born once, but twice. First, from your mother’s womb, and second from this laboratory that now sits empty, unused.”

Allie’s eyes narrowed. Her ears sharpened.

“Your body was too damaged. Your mind was not. We took a neural map, your brain’s physical and mental schematic, and duplicated it in the gray matter of a vat-grown brain. One, with no mental imprint. It, became you. That brain, like its accompanying organs, vascular system, nerves– its body, is yours.”

“You were born twice, Allison, and both times I loved you more than I could love anyone else.”

Nonsense. Asinine. You could no more transfer a mind than raise the dead. Yet still, she believed him. She didn’t know why, but she did. Now, Her eyes were wet. It wouldn’t be the last time.

“The problem, Allie, is you’re valuable. For the last twenty years, people have sought to capture and examine you. Countless would-be assassins. Kidnappers. Molesters. All of them sent to rip you from your rightful life.

“I couldn’t let you get attached to me, because I couldn’t allow myself to be used against you. But I feared most that if you grew to love me as I loved you, my death might scar you too terribly, make you too easy a target. I couldn’t bear to live with the consequences of that.”

His face soured first with fury, then grief, before he recomposed himself.

“It is fortunate you’ve reached the age you have before my death. Now your mother may train you to protect yourself. I’m truly sorry, Allison. Forgive the love that has put endangered you so. Forgive that it made him stubborn enough to remain cold to protect you. And forgive it that its greatest gift was soured by its enemies.”

His eyes glazed over with tears, “Most of all, forgive me.”

He cleared his throat, mentioning something passing about having written every day to her. That her mother had the journals. Despite everything said, his last words affected her most; even after she found herself beside her mother in the perma-gray.

“Forgive me, Allison. And know, no matter what, I have always loved you, my daughter.”

She choked a back a breath, “I do.”

Short Story: Cheap Rounds

She sat atop a bar-stool, dressed and hunched over like a man might. She’d learned to emulate them, though mostly to defy conventions. She was a rebel through and through, but rebellion wasn’t the cause of the day’s slump. It wasn’t spite, nor angst, either. Not even the usual mix of downers and booze that could take down a twice-laid, pro-player.

No. Today, it was loss.

Cameron had seen and done about everything one could, short of all-out world-war. Street wars, she’d seen. Even taken part of. She’d run guns, drugs, used more. She’d laundered money, skimmed from guys about to get capped. She’d even capped a few would-be hustlers.

She’d hustled her fair share too, met others in the game, traded tricks for camaraderie over drinks and drugs– even dinner, depending on the company. She’d loved, fucked, burned, and chased her chunk of women, but nothing compared to Cassie.

Cass’d started– damn near ended– that way. Cameron would’ve been the notch rather than the other way ’round. Things turned before long. They ended up inseparable. Two sides of a coin. Two halves of a whole. Both of them knew it.

Fact was, however unwilling to admit it, they’d been in love. The kind that made people insane; drove them to write poetical epics, mutilate themselves, or pump out double-platinum albums of veiled love-songs.

Now she was gone.

The semi-auto .44 pressed Cameron’s back from her waistband, loaded with two-surplus rounds; one for Cass, one for her. They’d used surplus everything since starting to save creds for a trip. Three weeks in paradise and a reprieve from the shit-hole of their lives.

At least, that was the plan. Not so much anymore…

She tossed back rotgut from a copper-plated still, regretting the rounds couldn’t have been higher grade. They’d come from Cass’ stash though. That much felt fitting at least.

The bleached faux-hawk, soaked red in her hands, stabbed Cameron’s chest.

She took another drink, hoping to pinpoint where things had gone wrong.

They’d met in the alley after the job. Smash ‘n grab at a jewelry store. The kind of knock-off a friend of a friend did for insurance. No shortage of scams these days. They were supposed to meet, divvy the loot, then head to the fences.

You went alone to a fence, or only with people that already knew them, okayed them. Otherwise, you were as good as snitching. Even if through third-parties. Didn’t matter, jackboots were jackboots. Every Tooler knew that. None took advantage.

Especially not like this.

Cameron was a few paces from Cass; just in ear-shot but not enough to hear clearly.

They were arguing. Probably a rip off, she guess. Every other dickhead Tooler tried one way or another. Mad ’cause “she ate pussy”, wouldn’t “eat” cock too. Or, ’cause she looked small enough to outfight– too small to be a well-respected black-belt in Shotokan Karate.

If she’d been given a chance…

There was no warning. Thunder cracked and the bastards fled. Cameron was too concerned with Cass, her body. It hit the dirty alley-floor and shattered Cameron’s mind. Her body still worked, but it was a long time before she knew or returned to it.

Sheremembered only abyssal despair; surfacing from depths so fathomless they’d permanently erased themselves; hot, blood-drenched fabric chilled in wind. Nothing else.

It was senseless. Capping a fellow Tooler for no reason? Beyond monstrous. Disliking someone wasn’t an excuse. Sure, there’d been tension after Tiny brought them on. Even more when he had to pull out, but Creeps aside, they’d all been hired as professionals.

Only after the creeps knew they weren’t getting more than the deal specified from the couple– did things start souring.

Cameron partially blamed herself for things. Assured to drink herself into oblivion because of it. ‘Least ’til what needed to be done was done.She’d felt those first hints of resentment, spite. Tasted and smelled them on the air. Mostly, coming from the pair they were set to work with.

By then, Tiny knew he was off the job but kept the group together and helped them plan and prepare. To Tiny’s credit, he’d done what he could ’til the job was on, ensuring it went as smooth as possible.

Indeed, it did. Despite being forced to attend other, unavoidable matters, he found a way to make due, did so expertly. Cameron could never have thought to blame him.Not in a million years. Nothing he’d had control over, or a hand in, was even far from perfect. Even the creeps had come highly recommended, with more-or-less ample skill.

Honor was Tiny’s way. His paradoxical name came from the stereotype he so thoroughly defied. Nothing about Tiny was small. Neither act nor intent, nor size and stature. He held to his word as a blood-pact, nothing more or less. No-one that knew him, believed otherwise.

Betrayal, or hints of it, weren’t a thing to him. Such fundamental wrongness didn’t exist in the world until he heard of them. Then, as its antithesis,he helped correct them.That was it. Betrayal existed only as long as was needed to ensure it did not, so it would not.

Personally, Cameron knew blaming Tiny helped nothing. No-one could predict the suddenly unpredictable regardless of the bystanders in its vicinity.

Besides, Tiny was already doing his part to right the wrong. He’d gotten the trigger-man to come in. The onethat took the life outta’ Cass. Cameron wantedhim. The other guy’d let it happen, but hating a person for intent made her worse than the murder. Too many people with hellish intentions but amicable actions to go that route.

She settled for the lesser evil; an eye for an eye. Taking out the one responsible most directly. Whether on hate or instinct, he’d shown he could not be trusted to control himself. If it had been premeditated, Tiny would’ve been involved, wasn’t.

His was crime of passion. Hers would be one of calm erasure from the collective populi.

The bartender stepped past, brushing her hand; the signal. Subtle. Indecipherable. That momentary pass still told of cold skin. The creature it belonged to as lifeless as its mate, now interred beneath a makeshift-marker outside town.

Less so even: the Earth was warming Cass now, keeping her ground temp. Cameron was less, might as well’ve been on ice. She threw back the last of her vile poison. The taste of a prison’s piss-filled casks followed her to the back door.

It’d take a few minutes before Tiny could work the guy into the alley. The places eternally reeked of equal parts piss and stale-vomit. A fitting place for the disposal of refuse.

Cameron added to the former at a squat in a corner, pissing as she hocked mucus and spat at a wall. She recomposed herself, then leaned against the wall near the door to smoke. It would open on her, giving Tiny the right entrance.

She took as much enjoyment as possible in the last smoke of her life, then flicked it away to check the .44’s chamber. Cass’ surplus round might as well’ve had Riven’s name etched in it– as if the very act of taking her life etched it there through will alone.

Instead, a brass jacket gleamed up beneath the industrial-bulb caged overhead. Five-pound moths fluttered and smacked the cage with the same of dullard indifference of the bullet beneath them.

Tiny’s deep voice reverberated the bar’s back-hall, leaked through its.

Cameron snapped the slide back; he’d talked Riven into stepping out for a line and a smoke. Riven’s mistake was thinking he’d gotten away with what he’d done– with thinking Cass was just another dead Tooler, nothing to no-one anyhow.

She planned to show just how wrong he was.

The door opened then shut. Riven whirled expecting to see Tiny’s Six-Eight figure shelling out smokes and coke.

Cameron’s five-five figure was draped in ragged clothing, reeking of liquor, and ending in the raised .44. Riven’s eyes widened. His mouth opened to protest.

Sound was swallowed in a crack. The .44 splattered his head’s contents out its exit-wound.Refuse sprayed the wall. The pistol sank, upturned. The barrel against chin.

She closed her eyes; Cass’ smiling face. She breathe, squeezed.

Nothing.

Memories flooded. Desperation. Anger. Betrayal. Worst and deepest, despair, grief.

They broke through her ’til she wound up cowering, utterly wracked by sopping-wet sobs. Tiny’d given her five minutes, expected to emerge and find two bodies, both with skull wounds. Instead, he found one; the other bleeding much deeper than senses allowed for.

The only thing he could say of the intervention later, was God, providence, Cass even.

That was how Tiny was. Cameron didn’t believe a word of it. It was cheap rounds. Cass had bought cheap rounds ’cause they were saving for their trip. Three weeks in paradise, fucking, drinking, loving. That was their plan. In that roundabout way, Tiny was right it was Cass, but divinity was a mile-stretch.

She explained as much, offered him Cass’ ticket. He replied simply, “You wan’ me to go?”

She shrugged. “Could use a friend right now. I think Cass’d be grateful.”

He finished his beer then nodded and rose to leave with her. After all, they had to pack, and boozing in paradise in a friend’s name wasn’t the worst way to memorialize them.

Poetry-Thing Thursday: Reflections in Stone

Before I go,
I must tell you what is known,
just so you,
may carry on with what is shown.
Sun low. Sky,
ablaze. Reflections in stone.
Dead foe and,
all that is left of man is bone.

The few creatures,
yet living and breathing
of hue ashen,
black eyed and now seething.
For they too,
have suffered from a species still teething,
that knew nothing,
of the value of weaponry sheathing.

Thus time was,
cruel to those whom least knew it.
The rhyme of,
a way they knew could not fit,
with a dime,
they sought only to pocket,
while a chime,
signaled to run rather than sit.

But in essence,
perhaps that is the moral.
Seek presence in,
those things not bound to whorl.
For a fence,
cannot help but to strengthen a quarrel,
just as sense,
may remain its own laurel.

We value blindness,
in a world of foresight.
And undo what,
nature has made right,
then chew on,
gristle that makes our jaws tight.
And during day,
rant long into the night.

But don’t you,
see we’ve but one world to claim?
Think, won’t you?
People, this is no game.
Life thrown’t to waste,
for fictitious gain, for shame,
This known’t, we’ll
forever be lame.

Short-Story: Staccato

Ryan McCafee hadn’t spoken to his father in over twenty years. He’d seen him. He’d even exchanged words with him. He hadn’t spoken to him. They’d interacted millions of times, even come close, but to “no cigar.” It wasn’t for lack of wanting. It just never happened. If they’d been insightful, or traffic control tower workers, their perpetual status would be “failure to commit.”

Ryan knew his father’s health was failing him. He remembered the first phone call. Mom had called. He’d spoken to her. They’d spoken often, in fact. Usually, she was speaking. Ryan wasn’t immune though, his mother was simply a gusher. The type to call eight or nine times for trivial things. Then, on the ninth or tenth, she’d suddenly burst with joy, sorrow, anger– whatever she’d been bottling. Ryan always listened, waiting patiently. This was, after all, the person that had taught him to walk, tie his shoes, dance with girls– the sort of thing every good mother does.

For a while, Ryan thought that the source of it: maybe their inability to say anything meaningful was from lack of some paternal role. But, no. The more Ryan thought, the more he’d recalled his father teaching him to swim, to ride a bicycle, to get dates and tie a tie for them. He did everything in his factual, punctual way, but he did them. His instructions were short. His tone staccato notes. Others might have thought him cold. Ryan knew it was just his way. He’d watched Dad explain things to Mom, or anyone else for that matter, the same way.

If he thought hard enough, Ryan could almost see where the shift began. When the proverbial chasm opened. It was around his seventeenth birthday. He’d been caught drinking and getting high. Nothing unusual for the time nor place. His hometown was what some might’ve called “one-horse.” Most just called it boring, Ryan included.At that age, his friends agreed. A few got daring, and grew grass or smuggled it in from other towns. Everyone got a piece, and ended up lying around giggling and fat from junk-food.

They’d been doing just that in a friend’s basement when the party was raided by the friend’s parents. They took Ryan and the others out, lined ‘em up by the phone, and made them each call their parents. Most importantly, they were made to say why. The first kid that didn’t had the phone torn away and the situation explained. The phone returned to his ear and his face went white. The kid whose parents had done it didn’t even need to punish him further. The death-marches of his friends to the phones and their parents’ cars was more than enough.

Ryan’s parents weren’t particularly disposed to discipline, but even he’d feared the eventual return home. Rather than treat him like a wild-west outlaw, they sat him down to “discuss things.” It was like the sex-talk, but longer, and somehow ended with him feeling more ashamed. His parents had been disappointed, but that was it.

Still, if Ryan thought hard enough, the “silence” had begun there. Not totally. There was no hard-edge. No “boundary.” These lines were the real kind. Not the imagined ones on maps. The truth was, it started there, but the separation was a process. It left Ryan feeling as if he couldn’t honestly say he’d miss his Father once he was gone. He knew he would, but admitting it didn’t feel honest. There simply wasn’t anything more between the two than if they’d been strangers at a party.

Now, at thirty-eight, he lie in bed staring at the ceiling. He’d gotten another call: Dad was going. They weren’t sure how long exactly, but it wasn’t long. He was still active, still moving, but that was the “silent killer’s” MO– your death certificate was signed before you knew it was on the table. Then, a few days, weeks, or months later, tired from the fight, you were gone.

Ryan left the one-horse town over a decade before the call for the city. There was a liveliness to city-life he liked, no matter how exhausting it got. Mostly, the world was there. The jobs were there. Mom and Dad weren’t, but that was it. He’d gotten Mom’s ninth call around midnight: she was sorry to wake him, but on-cue, gushed. Ryan said he didn’t mind, wasn’t sleeping, and listened to the sopping utterances.

He’d done his best to comfort her. He’d never been good at it. She wasn’t much in need of it anyhow. She’d always been the strongest of them– the warm, goose-down during the family’s sorrowful colds. Ryan did his best out of obligation, knowing it would never be enough. She was grateful anyway. They ended the call with the promise that Ryan would sleep then drive to One-Horse in the morning.

He hadn’t lied. He meant to sleep, but just sort of laid there. He must’ve fallen asleep at some point though as he found himself sitting in a strange, white room. It looked like an airport terminal, a train station, or a harbor, but didn’t at the same time. As if it were nowhere, everywhere, and those places and more all at once.

Ryan had just enough time to get his bearings in the uniform ubiquity before the odd shape of a person materialized beside him. It shimmered, fluttered into form. Even before it was whole, Ryan knew it was Dad. Once finally corporeal, Ryan gave his father a deranged look. He knew he was dreaming. Yet he was too conscious of it. It was like the room: the more he tried to convince himself of one thing, the more it felt like the other.

“Dad?”

“Hello, son.”

This can’t be real, Ryan thought.

“It is,” Dad said.

“Huh?”

“This,” he said with his factual way. His arms widened to encompass the place. “It’s real. As real as anything.”

Ryan craned his neck to eye every nook and cranny of the ethereal landscape. Dad’s tone put him at ease. Like everything else, this was his way of saying, “It is what it is. Whatever it is.”

“Okay,” Ryan replied aloud. “So, why’re we here?”

Dad eyed him, “I’m here to shuffle off. I ‘magine you’re here to see me off.”

The uncertainty gave Ryan pause. That pause lasted an eternity and a breath. However long it really was, he couldn’t say. All those emotions he thought they’d missed appeared full-force. Atop them were all the others he’d expected to have but hadn’t. He sucked in a pained breath that shattered the misty silence of that ethereal place.

Dad’s hand laid atop his shoulder. Suddenly, everything was muted. He found himself back where he’d been: Calm. Punctual. Like Dad. He exhaled a severely longer, deeper breath.

“One of us should speak.”

Ryan cleared his throat, “We haven’t spoken in twenty years, Dad.”

Dad nodded. “You’re right. But this’ll be our last chance. Might as well. Right?”

“Why was it that way?” Ryan asked for two reasons: One, it was a sensible reply. Two, if there was anything he felt could be worth speaking about, it was their lack of speaking.

Dad shook his head, “I taught you everything you needed to know, son. What I missed, your mother filled in. When I felt you were ready, I stepped back. Not because I didn’t love you, but because I did. I let you take command of your own life. I had confidence. I was ready to step in, if need be. But you’ve been immutable. When I thought you might falter, I waited. It took everything in me. But I waited. You stood tall. Every time.”

Ryan felt he knew the answer, but asked anyway, “Why? I spent years struggling. You couldn’t even say “congratulations” when I pulled through.”

For the first time in his life, Ryan’s father visibly winced. “It was a difficult decision. You might have resented me for it. We both know you don’t. If you did, I’d have been forced to step in. I knew, if you looked hard enough within you, you’d know I was proud. Now, you know I did it to help you be strong.”

Ryan felt like a broken record. “But why?

Dad shook his head. He rose beside his son. Ryan found himself following suit. Suddenly the pair were walking along a long hallway. They stopped at a boarding hallway. Or atop the start of a train platform. Or the edge of a pier. Maybe it was all of them and more– or none, and less.

Dad hugged him, then stepped back. “A man’s life is his own. I love you, Ryan. I’d tell you to take care of your mother, but we know she won’t need it. She’s strong. You are too.”

With that, Dad began the walk to the end of the path ahead. As he’d materialized, so too did he flicker and flutter again to disintegrate.

A sudden growling from Ryan’s beside table tore him from the place. His phone was ringing again. He eyed the clock; he’d slept only a few hours. Darkness still pervaded outside. All the same, he knew. Even before he saw Mom’s photo. Or heard her sopping words. Or felt reality’s sting. He knew, but he was at peace. Dad was too.

Whether a dream or real, he understood. In the end, he decided, that was all that mattered. Like father, like son. Short. Staccato. Truth. Facts. Love.