Short Story: Great Harmony, Great Harm

The question that comes up most often is, “what did the corps want with all that power?”

Firstly, they didn’t want anything. This misunderstanding was partly their own fault and design; an effect of juvenile and prematurely formed P-R departments. Sub-entities incapable of seeing the larger one they were part of, its emergent sentience.

But then, if they’d seen that, they’d never have fallen. So, would the same problems have existed anyhow? Likely not.

While the corporations didn’t survive the fall, their seed remains scattered.

Incorporation was an idea never existent before its take-over. Many things had tried to reach for it, notably religion, but like the world that came after them, corporations were an evolution of those first-reachers. Rather than being copies or counterparts, they were an intermediate form of one of Humanity’s collective, special endeavors.

Like the Moon Landing and the Space-Age,Corporations were merely taxonomic delineations of Human transitions. This one, post-human; postdigital. Not because humans or digital things no longer existed, but because they would now always exist.

Such transitions were the evolution of Human society. Pre-corp history was ancient, no matter how recent. Simply because it was history without technology, its principles and ideals, its ubiquity.

A culture, or entity, unable to cope with its environment, dies.This is the basis of all theories of adaptation and evolution.Corporations took over by riding that evolutionary wave and thinking they could control it.

Really, they were deluded opportunists.

That was the Corps’ greatest mistake. Even to the end, they didn’t realize what they were. Even less, the damage they were doing to the order of things with their refusals to evolve or die.

Irony is, corporations evolved from a place of need. Like that of government and law, their niche was theirs and theirs alone, could never be met otherwise. They could forever be lords of their lands without care or worry for the world outside.

But only in their lands. Nowhere else.

Obviously, that didn’t last. Internal competition brought out teeth. Corps gored one another’s throats, spilling blood-money into their water and wine and making them thirsty for more. It wasn’t long before Corps were rabidly dividing the land, conniving and double-dealing for anything, everything.

A panic-scramble for ground spilled to the rest of the world as simple panic. Corporations had become either too big or too small. There was no middle ground. Some collapsed. Others became scavengers, cannibalizing their fallen brethren for survival.

The latter lasted.

Trying to fill every niche at once, and mostly failing, revealed the true systemic corruption within them; greed. In such a volume as to rival that of original sin. Humans had been greed-mad, yes, but postdigital humans were capable of such immense effect, affect– their corporations moreso– that each was capable of total effect in their own fields, contexts.

In other words, a single human could have the power of many– and vice versa, and thus each human could now alter the course of human history if they so desired. The only unknown was scale. Corporations made any scale possible.

They were prosperity and security beyond competition, or survival, or even primal need-fulfillment.

Corporations had resources on every level; in astounding numbers. They could build, test, and perfect ideas in fractions of normal time. They could perfect rockets to Mars before government papers were even seen. What else could be expected of elderly systems and organizations based on pre-digital-age mentalities.

Like Humans, Corporations were multi-cellular organisms. They simply weren’t sentient. Yet.

They were one creature, formed of groups of smaller ones, working together to ensure the whole acted in protection of itself. Governments, like corporations after them, operated this way. Their methods of action were justice, law, order. Corporations knew, and indeed cared only for, money.

If corporations had been satisfied with their place or their guiding Humans not so foolish, they’d have laid claim wherever money could be found and settled in for eternity. Ultimately, it was their playground. Wherever, however, so long as it was money, Corporations could handle it.

But the didn’t. Instead, they began to diversify into politics, security, law; places they had no business in but their money could buy just as well as anywhere else.

If things had gone any differently, they would have remained benign enough to coexist with the postdigital world.It was their aggressive manifestation of greed, impotent outside their own deserved grievances, that condemned them.

The possibility of niche breakout was the corporations’ first exit to evolution, however self-guided. Rather than approach it like sentient, self-aware organisms, they tore past, swallowing what they could and smiting the rest. The individual organisms therein, rather than recall the whole’s greater priority, aimed purely for personal gain.

Nothing unusual, but the way they did it was the problem.

These cells saw the inherent flexibility in their system, their environment; that any cell could take over any work. Then began to strive for the top, for purely monetary gain. That interchangeability of components was an idea formed first in mass production.

To corporations though, it was the people running and maintaining the system– its employees, that were the interchangeable parts.

In the end, all that mattered for a corporation was that its parts ran. After all, that was how the money was made, the resources stockpiled. Even the engine through which the money was made was interchangeable. Its context, through-put, was part of the immense robustness of the system as well, because it was really a framework.

As a chassis is the frame work for a car, any car, a Corporation could do anything. Not because it wanted to, but because it was designed to, engineered to. Corporations were the culmination of millennia of social organization, collapse, and restructuring of society through unguided chaos.

Like those ramshackle, sheet metal systems of law, government, you-name-it, they were meant for easier repair after falling down in the storm. Their parts were only ever phased-out. Not replaced. Above all, they were never meant to weather the storm.

Storms were part of the environment. Humans had grown to recognize that now. Thus, it required preparation and collective strength, will, resources. Re-enter Corps, their greed, until their very purpose was so corrupted nothing of them could be allowed to remain.

Perhaps, if left to time to evolve, become re-prioritized, and adaptedto a new purpose fitting its structure they could have functioned again. In effect; the same garment, different label effect of copy-paste, inherit and sale Corps themselves pioneered.

However, while most corp-people, or cells, recognized this as the point conscious or not, corp loyalty did exist, could be used. Tribal mentality could still wholly manipulate people. It was an effective means of re-orienting, but it was not to be used lightly.

Even before Corporations took that precious grounding-rod of control from the people, their chances of survival were shrinking, as a result of Corp mistakes. History had shown only a small, conscious fraction was needed to corrupt the whole, and gut-instinct alerted humanity it was happening then.

Namely, through mediumof personal greed. Chiefly, by those aforementioned level-jumpers.

In effect a small group had, and were, utterly corrupting the very fabric of Human living simply by trying to corrupt their own, conceptual reality. One was a byproduct of the other, certainly, but neither were acceptable or health for the system, those affected by it.

Theft of concepts was nothing knew. It had long been happening: since the thefts of pagan culture and beyond. The corruption was never whole. Never glaring. It was by degrees. Parasites putting themselves near their host-brain to control its actions.

In other words, their meaningless titles came to mean more than they were willing to accept for the required ratios of risk/worth, win/loss, 0 or 1. Instead of bowing out, they put the weight and squeeze on the rest of the system for their mistakes. This was untenable.

The first Japanese corporations understood this reality. Their culture so perfectly fitted the corporate way, it was a wonder they weren’t its inventors. While that honor remained the West’s, the Japanese were the first and foremost to embrace it.

And why not? The Japanese do-or-do-not absolutism more or less defined corporate existence. It was the manifestation of Eastern culture. Its duality of yin and yang.

Following the aftermath of World War II, and the inherent, flexible modularity of the corporation, it was no wonder the Japanese clung to it– it was hand-tailored to their mental-build on mass-production scales. Ones they’d never seen before because no-one had, but that they needed because of post-war Japan’s desperation.

Any extraneous, cultural details lost in the fitting of one system (society) to other were the eventual consequences of change and prosperity. Necessary sacrifices. Accepted as the price of adaptation and survival. Just as Japanese surrender was a consequence of fighting and losing.

The need to rebuild following retaliation was cause and effect; a system. One fitting perfectly to a rigid, logical culture built from inherently identical, core principles. Though devoid of emotion, it spoke to these humans’ psyche using the same, fundamental methods as learning not to touch fire. It simply did so through the medium of technology.

Technology’s inherent modularity, its reliance on systems therein, simplified all systems to the fewest components necessary to function. It was required for achieving maximum effect and permeability, as per its more or less intended design; ubiquity.

In a changing society increasingly composed of ones and zeroes, and comprehending the scale of their task, the Japanese saw the simplicity of corporations’ dominance as manifestation of not just everything natural, but also logical.That dominance, simplified, was Input=Output.

Likewise, its Yin came of age as digital in all but culture and maturity. Eventually the harbinger of war, it was then too late for any amends. The Yang was long corrupted by greed. Western first, true, but greed.

The difference between Japanese corporate (Zaibatsu) culture and Corporate culture, was the first encompassing the second as a means of functioning. They were separate entities, but no less layered atop one another. Corporate culture was a thing unto itself, designed to appear similar, but too closed and small a system for any of structural redundancies.

The second existed to mimic the first and line its constituent parts’ pockets, so far as they believed. Really, the first was required because of instability in their particular environment; finance.

Japanese culture functioned well with Corporations. So-called Zaibatsus required willingness to accept responsibility, but Vietnam showed western culture vehement feared responsibility. More than that, they’d found they could live without it, however uncomfortably.

Japan’s utter lack of counter-culture during the Western excess of the last half of the 20th century was evidence of a major, social reformation in thought. The entirety of Japan’s culture had been shamed for generations to come for opportunistic greed. At some level, all of them knew that.

None would defy it for generations.

Zaibatsus doubly ensured Corps came to form with the manifestations of Asian, cultural history. Japanese ones in particular were evident in their design and structure. Who better to care for structural redundancy than those so recently and personally reminded of its dire importance?

Japanese cultural evolution was no-one else’s. Not then. And when the time did finally come to emulate it, the message was lost in translation. It came encrypted in silly game shows and absurdist humor; Sensible Chuckles of the post-modern post-war world echoing outward.

In the end, Japan was fertile ground for the Corporations; its people their gentle tenders.The Japanese had wanted it that way. Somehow. Collectively. In time, they helped cultivate it in gratitude for the chance to redeem themselves, however small.

Therein, they cemented their redemption as one of grace and poise despite history. They wished to show how redemption should be done when the sword was no longer an option. Rather than burning the world down, to spite it, as corporations tried too, Zaibatsus attempted prosperity for all involved.

A legacy well worthy of the care provided to it.

Even the loose culture Zaibatsu employees could have been said to form was only such tangentially. The system of culture itself was now modular too, accepting of the full-range of Human effect. Including deep shame, so long as it were aired properly.

Humanity’s dregs of course, took this as a personal challenge, humbling only themselves before the might of time and stone. There, they were eventually forced to rest, for benefit of one and all, themselves through it.

The following admission and correction of mistakes,when made, became the basis of all of life’s continually observed purpose.

Had life not needed observation before, the Japanese might never have seen the benefits it provided. Perhaps, had Zaibatsu Corporatism caught on, corporations would still exist. Perhaps, some day, they will return; evolved and therein immune to greed and people willing to embrace them as the Japanese once did.

So long as the system’s constituent parts remain vulnerable to greed however, it remains removed from civilization’s grasp-at-will tools. A surgeon does not carry a mallet for work of his pay-grade. Thus unneeded tools can be set aside for more viable ones.

Avoiding that mass of potential, its corruption, was the point. Whether aimed toward great harmony or great harm, they could not be allowed. That was the point of the revolution. Not the power the corps had or had not. It was about taking the loaded gun from the child’s hand, keeping it safe until they knew its purpose– and only ever with hope they never need use it.

That was the revolution’s purpose, and the corporation’s downfall; restoring Humanity, its control, to Humans.

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.”

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.

The Collective: Part 8

8.

Heist

Lex stamped a boot on a rear bench-seat of a cargo van. Her body seemed gyroscopically stable against the Alps’ rough roads. She tightened her laces while Rachel jostled absently beside her. Her eyes had been empty since they’d left Japan. Full-days of boat and car-rides had gotten them across the Asian continent and upward into central Europe, but in all that time, neither she nor Lex had said much. They merely ate, stopped occasionally to rest, resupply, or sleep.

Now the journey was almost over. After they took the vault, they would rocket back to Japan, finish what had been started. The way forward however, would be no easy task.

The Collective housed their vault in the basement of a castle once belonging to a Swiss Baron– a literal dungeon dated to the late fourteenth century. The Baron had been murdered in his sleep by Hitler’s Schutzstaffel while his other forces made their French push. The insurgency however, was thwarted by the Baron’s security forces before it could become a full-blown Casus Belli and drag the country into war. Switzerland remained neutral but the castle changed hands more times than Lex cared to count– all of them greased by dirty money.

She sank beside Rachel whom hunched over in her coat against cold that leaked in. The engine and transmission strained beneath them, urged onward by a heavy foot. Yang-Lee’s scarred face peered back from the passenger-seat, “We’re close.”

Lex readied herself at the rear-doors, “Pull off the road. We’ll walk from here.”

Minutes later Lex and her team, Rachel included, began to hike the final, long twist of road that led to the castle. They emerged on the far-side of a wide curve. Mountains loomed with an ubiquitous boldness to their right and in the background, but the spectacle ahead was curiously level given its craggy surroundings. Jagged, tooth-like ramparts and walls formed a wide barrier between a courtyard and the road with turrets every hundred meters. Gray and white patchwork prevailed through-out the weathered stone-walls. Off-center, but even with the road, stood the gate in all its impenetrable stubbornness.

A man with a rifle patrolled along the wall, security lighter here than it would be inside. The place would be filled with armed GSS Emergency Response Squads– the most elite of the elite not deployed to external security teams. They would bleed all the same.

“Kaz,” Lex said to the Japanese woman. “Go.”

She needed no further instruction. The man had yet to spot them, his mind fatigued to complacency by boredom. Kaz was behind him in a flash, her feet silent. The only sound was that of the blade as it pierced his back, cracked his sternum, and emerged from his chest. He fell face-first into the snow, dead and bleeding.

Lex and Yang-Lee were at Kaz’s side as she stooped to rifle through his pockets. Rachel and Ryo approached, their heads swiveling. The former was more paranoid than the strategic latter. Kaz rose, a key-card and radio in-hand, passed them to Lex. She stuck the radio’s ear-piece in to monitor the GSS frequency, moved them up to an arched, wooden door in the wall beside the massive gate.

The key-card touched a panel beside the door, scanned a magnetic stripe. The door eased open on a small, quiet hydraulic. Lex stepped in, nearly blind from the relative darkness.

She kept her senses honed, whispered at the others, “The rampart will lead into a tunnel. From there, we follow passages to the vault. Stay sharp.”

Rachel was silent, unsure why she was even there. Though Lex assured her she would be safe, there were more than a few doubts to her sincerity. More than likely, she would be looked to for any unforeseen developments that might arise. The only explanation Rachel could surmise verged on wafer-thin; she might know how the Collective think.

Whatever the real reason for her presence, she kept dead-center in the line of bodies that stalked the shadows beneath the ramparts. Centuries ago, this place would have been filled with the stinking bodies of medieval soldiers ready to fight and die for their home or Monarch. Now, it was desolate, empty. Its wide, arched passageways were more a curious, historical oddity than anything. Most certainly they were no longer necessary as secondary pathways to the turrets above.

They managed to find the cross-chamber that led to the vault unimpeded. The retro-fits became more obvious as the group dodged the sweeping gazes of security cameras. Old, crumbled stone transformed to restored brick work, finally morphed into steel plating that covered the walls, ceiling, and floor, reinforced them against whatever intrusion had been thought of. Evidently the Collective didn’t expect anyone walk through the side door, much less with minimal force.

They found another, circular cross-chamber with a pillar in its center. It led around to three, other pathways. From the database Andersson had given her, Lex knew two passages led to the upper-levels and the castle’s Great Hall. The third then, led to the vault and the first of its security measures. Casual footsteps echoed over the sound of voices. Lex and the others hurried to back up, out of sight.

A German voice spoke patchwork English, “Herr Steinsson hat arrived.”

“Yeh?” An Irish man’s accent asked. “What’s ‘e want?”

Der Kommandant sagt es ist about die monthly inspektion,” the German replied.

The Irish man said something as his voice curved around the inner-portion of the cross-chamber. It began to fade away, trail off down the second passage that led to the upper-levels. Lex stealthed forward, double-checked the chamber, then urged the others back into place.

The first of the security measures began just inside the passage to the vault. It wasn’t immediately obvious, and in fact, Lex wouldn’t have known were it not for Andersson’s intel. The steel-plated floor was randomly pressure-sensitive with no external indication of triggers; a singular height and shined to a high-gloss.

Thankfully, “random” actually meant patterned in a non-obvious way. Much like a musical phrase, there were obvious repetitions with only mild variation, then wild variations on either end of the phrases that led into one another. Together, they formed a mental picture in Lex’s mind that would zig-zag her across the floor-tiles.

“Step where I step and nowhere else,” Lex said quietly.

She planted her foot on the first plate, reassured herself by putting her other down and standing still for a moment. She admitted a small relief to herself, then closed her eyes to envision the layout. Left two, up one, right one, up two, left two, up two, right two. She stepped through the first series of tiles. The others followed carefully. Their eyes darted between their own feet and those of the person ahead. Each step was a vise around their hearts that tightened the further they progressed.

At the right, ninety-degree angle the hall formed, Lex stopped, stared ahead. She knew what lay unseen, between her and the massive, three foot-thick, circular-door. She also knew what would happen if she blundered forward; the castle would go on lock-down. The vault’s entry systems would be isolated, locked out of the castle’s security network until remotely reconnected. Meanwhile all GSS assets in-country would be diverted to neutralize the threat while panels in the ceiling opened, emitted hydroflouric acid and methoxyflurane gas. In other words, they’d be awake just long enough to go into shock, then die from cardiac arrest while unconscious– or else live disfigured the rest of their lives in prison.

Lex breathed, prepared. She pulled a small, cylindrical emitter from a pocket, the size of a D-Cell battery, but black with a hard shell. Its bottom-half twisted to engage it. Then, with another, careful motion, Lex followed the zig-zag of free-plates to the center of an invisible laser emitter. She stooped down, placed another cylindrical-device that misted the air every few seconds.

Rachel watched faint outlines of red-lasers bowed upward above Lex. The others engaged their countermeasures, followed after her. The mist caught the edges of the next set of emitted lasers. They bowed upward, reshaped by the static-discharger in Lex’s hand as she approached. Rachel held her discharger, heart in her throat as they made a start-stop progression while Lex placed the misting canisters. At the line’s rear, Ryo retrieved each one, then proceeded forward. As the last of the mist settled and Ryo moved from range, the lasers relaxed, ensured the group they would be forced to leave as they’d entered.

Lex’s goal was within reach now. No-one would stop her– not even the men in the security room that monitored the vault from the cameras at either side of it. With a final, calculated step, she passed from the mine-field of pressure plates and onto a wide, singular section of floor before the vault door. It spanned at least as much of the door’s sweeping gait, more even, it seemed.

The others followed, disengaged their countermeasures. Kaz and Yang-Lee split for the cameras, cut open their insulated wires to splice small, box-like devices to them that magnetically latched to the cameras’ bodies. They backed away from their respective cameras; Yang-Lee stood sentinel at the edge of the lone plate, faced the way they’d come.

Kaz returned to Lex’s side, “We’re ready.”

Lex nodded, “Ryo?”

He stepped past for a large panel beside the door. A hand-print scanner was housed in a touch screen below a retinal scanner and voice-print lock. In addition, numbered keys said a code was necessary to breach the state of the art security. Ryo had none of those things. Instead, he produced slam-bore from his pack, punched through the panel’s half-dozen screws, then pried it from the wall. The panel came loose, caught by Kaz’s hands. It jostled as he fished through the wires, spliced them to a bundle of cable connected to a hand-held tablet computer.

A full minute later hydraulics hissed over a series of loud clicks. Giant, steel bolts grated metal on metal as they slid back, in. The group stepped aside for the vault door to ease open, reveal its innards and their bounty. They stood in awe for a moment– even Rachel’s eyes gleamed dully at the hundreds of tons of gold and platinum bullion. A smug, knowing smile crept across Lex’s face.

This was the bulk of the world’s economy. It made Fort Knox look like chump-change. Despite the comparatively small vault, the bullion here was two and three times as valuable as Knox in its heyday. What was more, it was the Collective’s only physical measure of wealth. Long before the Sleep paper money had become useless, but even digital currency required physical assets to remain fiscally solvent, its value relative to what backed it. With a well-placed explosive, Lex planned to destroy– or at least nullify– the Collective’s stock-piled wealth.

“Take only what you can without being weighed down,” Lex said as she entered the vault. “Don’t get greedy.”

They entered the marble-floored vault. Lock-boxes formed mausoleum-like walls around the massive carts of gold and platinum. Kaz and Yang-Lee went to work to hack more cameras in the room’s corners then joined in ransacking the carts. They filled canvas packs with as much metal as they could carry.

Lex took a wide path around the vault, set small, thermos-like devices in its corners: they could never destroy the vault, or indeed even the metal in it. What they could do was turn the room into a super-powerful magnet so strong it– and everything inside it– would deform. The devices would create a singularity of unrivaled proportions by building to critical mass. The vault would contract, re-fuse until no larger than an SUV. The molten ball formed wouldn’t cool for weeks, months even. The repository would be eradicated in one, fell-swoop, its value gone.

The group procured their metal, then readied to make the trek back. The vault door swung shut as the super-magnets’ timers engaged. In a little less than five minutes, they would activate, begin to build up their polar charges, and the chaos would begin. Lex moved quickly back across the safe plates, through the lasers, and into the central passageway.

The timer was already down four-minutes when they reached the pillared cross-chamber. Lex shoved her bag of bullion into Rachel’s hands, “Go with them, I’ll meet you in Tokyo.”

Rachel was suddenly irate, “What? Are you crazy? Where are you going?”

“Steinsson is here,” Lex replied with a knowing look to the others. “Viktor Steinsson is a member of the Collective. He can not be allowed to live.”

“Forty-five seconds,” Kaz said with a look to her watch.

Rachel argued over her, “You’re crazy, Lex, you can’t–”

“Get out!” Lex ordered with a caustic hush.

“Come on,” Ryo said, pulling Rachel along.

Rachel watched Lex as the seconds ticked down. She suddenly drew her blades, disappeared around the pillar. Rachel swallowed acid; as much as she’d been against Lex, she was the closest thing left to a friend. Between what the Collective would do, and her weariness at the others like Lex, she didn’t want to be without even the minor rapport they’d built.

Rachel’s safety was admittedly nearer in Lex’s mind than her own as she sprinted through the maze of main-passageways that curved around, back, straightened out, and widened again. Her blades gleamed while her feet beat a gallop along plated floors toward a pair of men. They turned in time to be cut down, cast aside from the passage’s center. Lex followed through without a missed beat. Her blades dripped trails along the zig-zag of stairs that led up to the Great Hall.

She exploded onto the marble floors just as alarms screamed through the castle. The magneto-bomb had been detected. In moments it would reach critical mass, destroy the world’s last repository of hard currency. Nothing could stop that now, but Lex wouldn’t have let it anyhow.

Orders were shouted all around the Hall, echoed through its expanse over boots that marched down toward the vault. Lex saw the castle’s blue-prints in her mind, knew Steinsson would be in the security room just off the right side of the hall. Her feet danced poly-rhythms near a door over a melody of steel cutting skin. She severed the jugulars of a pair of guards there. More began to appear, their attention directed elsewhere form the chaos downstairs.

She shoved her way through a heavy, wooden door. The narrow hall beyond was long, filled with doorways of various non-importance. Her goal lay dead ahead, behind an open doorway with bodies that moved every which way around chromed-out tech.

She made the door in a few steps, bolted inside with a flurry of movement. She whirled round, blades cutting. The commotion inside barely registered the deaths of three security techs. Steinsson turned, the glaring eyes accented the white of his thinning hair. His recessed hair-line made jagged points of already-angled features.

Lex’s blades thrust and sliced, incised and slit their way across the room. Her body followed, the entities inseparable in their blurred motions. Before Viktor could react, Lex’s brought the katanas’ hilts together in a deep lunge. The blades sank into him, pierced clean-through with a splatter of blood that painted an abstract on the wall and tech behind him. The blades slid out in time to spin, catch two GSS guards on either side beneath their helmets.

Blood spilled from freshly cut throats as she came about, blades in their downward-point. Three GSS officers stood across the room with raised rifles. They shouted commands in various languages over the wail of klaxons. She refused to flinch. A man fingered his trigger.

A burst of fire riddled his body from the doorway. A second cut down the man beside him. The third turned as Lex’s right-hand blade sailed through the air, into his chest at an angle. A third burst cut him down simultaneously. He fell, dead. The smoke of the gunfire cleared in time for Lex to catch Rachel in the doorway.

For a moment both women were too shocked to move. Lex shook it off first, sprinted forward, retrieved her blade then made for the door. She drug Rachel with by the shoulder until she regained her wits.

“I wasn’t going to come back for you,” Rachel panted, in-step with Lex.

“Not now,” Lex said as they entered the Great Hall for the castle’s main door.

Sunlight beckoned them forward from the open doors, kissed them with its frosty presence. The courtyard was empty. Distant metal grated, ground as something behind them exploded. Neither woman paused to look back. Instead, they rushed for a door in the wall they’d entered through, took the rampart’s interior in a few steps, then shoved their way back into the day-light.

Their chests heaved, feet slipped on icy snow, caught traction on the road. Limbs pumped with aching muscles to launch them down the mountain, around the winding corner toward the awaiting van. Kaz had already angled it around, the back-doors open and the engine running.

Lex shoved Rachel inside as she climbed in, “Go! Go!”

The van started into a gallop, assisted by the road’s steep grade. The rear-doors slammed shut as Lex and Rachel pushed themselves up from the floor, fought opposing gravity to re-take their seats over a wheel.

Rachel swallowed hard with a look to Lex beside her, “We… actually made it.”

Lex gave a long sigh to recompose herself, “Yeah. We did.” She glanced at Ryo across from her, “The metal?”

He looked sideways at the pile of bags that clanked and clanged from the road’s twists and turns. Lex threw her head back, relieved, and leaned against the van’s wall. Her head rolled along her neck to meet Rachel’s eyes.

“Thank you.”

Rachel winced, grimaced. Then, with a small nod she replied, “You’re welcome.”

Missed Part 7? Read it here!

The Collective: Part 7

7.

Interrogation

Ville Andersson hung from a chain under a leaking water pipe. Between the rancid water that ran down his exposed upper body, the puddle beneath him, and his still-wet pants and socks from the rain, there wasn’t much of him left dry. Lex planted a heavy slap across his face to rouse him.

He shook awake, “What the hell? What’s going– who d’you think you are?! Let me down at once!”

Another slap silenced him. Lex stepped back into the cross-light that filled another, nondescript basement in yet another abandoned tenement. Rachel angled between the two from the right, a chair in her hands. She swallowed hard, set it to their left. Fear and regret infected her as she stepped back with a pair of jumper cables in her gloved hands. The cables snaked to the chair, connected to a new-age high-strength car battery there.

Andersson eyed the jumper prongs in Rachel’s hands, “You must be joking. Filthy pig!

Rachel shook her head. Lex slapped Andersson’s face again, refocused his attention on her, “The battery isn’t enough to kill you. However, if your body is electrified long enough, your nervous system will fry. Even after the current’s removed, you will continue to feel pain. Your muscles seize. Your pulse becomes erratic. You struggle to breathe, but can’t. You want to scream, but only gasp. Your Jaw clenches. Teeth grind.” Lex took a step back, “If you’re lucky, your pain receptors will blow-out before it is over. You’ll go in to shock. Only when your brain starts to shut down will the agony finally end.” Lex removed a massive, fluid-filled syringe and needle from an inside pocket of her jacket, “That is, unless someone shoots you with adrenaline.” She lifted the syringe, made sure it was a focal point between them, “Straight in your heart.”

Andersson swallowed breathlessly, “ Wh-what do you want?”

Lex’s eyes narrowed slightly, “The location and bypass measures for the Collective’s vault.”

“How d’you– No, no I can’t,” he said with a fearful shudder.

Lex sighed, crossed her arms, then nodded to Rachel. She trembled, flinched as she sparked the prongs together. Andersson protested, pled. The clamps spread wide with a forward step. She thought to hesitate– it was this or Lex killed her. If she left, the Collective killed her. It wasn’t a choice, just a different form of torture. At least Ville’s was obvious.

Charged steel touched Andersson’s skin at his chest and hip. His mouth opened to scream, rasped instead. His body writhed, shook. The current locked his jaw. Freshly cooked skin perforated the air. Rachel fought to keep her stomach from climbing her throat. Her arms made micro-moves to keep the prongs on Andersson. He juked, spasmed, seized. She kept conscious; her treatment would be worse, at least this proved her usefulness.

“Enough.”

Rachel almost fell backward. The prongs lifted, spread apart. Andersson dangled, helpless. Errant shocks still arced over him. His jerked and twitched with whimpers. Scorch-marks of red, over-cooked skin had yet to blacken or peel.

“The vault, Ville,” Lex said calmly. “We know it is in the Alps. Its coordinates and bypass protocols and this ends.”

His jaw chattered from the electricity’s effects, “I-I c-can’t. T-they’ll k-kill me…”

Rachel winced, met Lex’s eyes. She gave a slight nod. Rachel steeled her throat against the bilious rise from her gut. Her hands re-fixed their grip on the prongs.

“N-no. No!”

Andersson’s cries turned to a sustained growl. Current rocketed through him. Blue spines emanated in waves across his skin in water from the pipe above. Jaw-muscles clenched. Enamel ground. His legs and shook until Rachel was sure she’d lose contact.

“Stop.”

Rachel was woozy. She returned to her spot beside the chair. Lex took a few steps forward, put a pair of fingers to Andersson’s neck. In one motion she uncapped the syringe, jammed into his heart, and shoved the plunger in. His body tensed with a rasping scream.

He was suddenly fully alert, “Okay, I’ll talk. I’ll talk.” He sobbed, “You’ll… n-need a p-pen.”

Andersson was true to his word. He began to talk, at length. He needed no further incentive. Evidently the adrenaline had been as bad as Lex remembered. Or perhaps the Swiss man was merely less robust. He revealed the coordinates and vault security protocols all the same. Rachel scribbled his words on a few sheets of paper, along with a remote IP address to download the vault’s specs.

“T-that’s it,” Andersson finished. “Th-that’s all there is.”

Lex nodded, “Very good, Ville.” She drew a blade from her back.

“B-but, I gave you everything you wanted!”

Lex’s eyes were cold, “Not everything.”

The blade whirled. Her arm extended. Steel plunged into his heart. His body gave a final twitch, then went limp against its binds. The blade withdrew, whirled. Blood splat across the back-wall.

Rachel stared. She’d suspected Lex would kill Andersson regardless. Between what Rachel had done herself, and what Lex assured she’d suffer if she resisted, she’d entered a sort of autonomous fugue state. She was aware of the atrocity she was committing, but somehow it was now all the more real. The papers shook with her hands. Her throat bubbled acid.

She sprinted for a distant, dark corner of the room, fell to her knees. The sound of retching heaved acid from her empty gut. Bile stung her sinuses over putrescent mold. The sickly combination fueled her dry-heaves. Rachel forced herself to come up for air, the wet basement’s stink too powerful. Her knees trembled as she rose. Lex re-sheathed her blade, collected the papers.

“I-I c-can’t do this,” Rachel stammered.

Lex’s methodical actions remained unhindered, “Are you reneging on our deal?”

Rachel swayed into a clumsy walk to approach Lex, “What deal? You mean turning me into a monster in place of killing me? Or sending me back to the Collective to have them kill me? Where’s the deal there, Alexis? Where’s my incentive?”

Lex remained collected, “I’ve told you before, my name is Lex.”

Rachel grit her teeth. Tears welled in her eyes, “You’re just going to use me until I’m not helpful anymore, then kill me anyhow. Even if you don’t, you’ll send me back to the Collective, make them do it for you. So where’s my incentive, Alexis?

Lex made a move that Rachel was sure would end her life. Instead, she found herself nose-to-nose with her, “My name is Lex. Your people made sure Alexis died in prison, falsely accused of her parents’ murder.” Rachel’s breath trembled, hot on Lex’s face. “Have you ever been in a Collective Prison for dissent?” Lex’s eyes sharpened with her tongue, “Do you know what they do to people they can’t turn into Sleepers?” Another breath trembled, mixed hot air with the basement’s cold on Lex’s face. Rachel’s eyes clenched shut in terror. “Trust me when I say, Andersson’s torture was a reprieve compared to what they did to us– to me.”

Lex straightened, increased the distance between them. Rachel’s eyes flitted open, but remained down-cast, petrified.

“Every breath you take from this moment forward is a gift from me, Rachel Dahl,” Lex said harshly. “You may not have been my captor, but your negligence allowed me to be theirs. Trust that if I wanted you dead I would not hesitate to kill you. One day, you will recognize that. With it, you will see you’re only alive because your crimes are not irredeemable. Only then can you begin to seek redemption.” Lex turned to leave, “If I were you, I would do everything to ensure I retain that opportunity.”

Missed part 6? Read it here!

The Collective: Part 6

6.

Follow the Money

Lex stood in the center of a basement hideaway that smelled of damp mold. It was poorly lit by a few, LED lamps on tables and a desk. A large cable-spool formed a make-shift table between she and Rachel whom sat in a stinking couch. Its tattered edges said it was decades past its expiration date. Around the room were men and women dressed like Lex, blades at their back and eyes fixed on her attentively. The fresh scents of blood and sweat mingled with an organic putrescence that told of recent murder; at least a few of the group had been in the Garden, their blades recently wet with the blood of Calista’s snipers.

In the table’s center, a holo-projector splayed the faces of three people into the air. Rachel knew them all by reputation, if little else. Two men and a woman, all three well-known public figures.

“In order to bring the Collective to its knees, we need to stem their flow of money,” Lex said to the assembly. “The first target is this man, Ryota Tanaka.”

One of the faces took the place of the others. The Japanese man looked to be in his mid-forties, but the graying of his hair, and sagged corners of his eyes said he might be much older. Undoubtedly, he was one of the Collective’s elders whom long ago received the anti-aging drug, and halted their biological aging in its path.

“Hiro. Kaz. Tanaka is your mark,” Lex said to two of the faces in the room. “Each night he dines at the Kobe Ranch, one of the few non-synthetic cuisine restaurants left in the city. The place is largely empty, but heavily guarded. Be prepared. As soon as you enter, you’ll have his men on you.”

The man and woman bowed their heads respectfully to her. Turned for the basement’s exit.

“Ryo, and Yang-Lee,” she said to two men. The image changed again; the blonde woman in her late fifties with heavy, Anglican features from a Germanic heritage– or something near it. Lex confirmed it, “Your target’s the German investment banker Ava Martz. She will be meeting with her ex-husband to exchange their children at his apartment uptown. Yang, you will escort Mr. Martz and his children to Ava’s awaiting limousine and commandeer it while Ryo completes the hit. See to it that they’re taken somewhere safe and report back once the job’s finished.”

Yang’s scarred face had seen its share of violence, was obscured in shadow from a bow mirrored by Ryo beside him. They turned to leave, disappeared as Hiro and Kaz had. Lex scanned the remaining faces in the room, then her eyes fell to Rachel, “Ms. Dahl, you will accompany me to capture and interrogate this man.”

The final image overtook the others; a man in his mid-thirties. There was something vaguely Scandinavian in his ice-blue eyes, an almost formal-lethality to his pointed features.

“Ville Andersson,” Rachel said.

“Correct,” Lex replied. “Tell me what you know about him.”

Rachel sat forward to a whiff of mold, “Swiss banker. Youngest member of the Collective. He runs money through various would-be legitimate organizations and charities, all of which are tax-dodges. The Collective donates roughly all of their profit through him, allows them to evade any tax laws. Then, it’s stored in his private vault in the Alps.”

Lex was impressed. Rachel judged by the room’s silence that most others were as well. She refocused, “Very good. Then you understand why we must capture him and extract the vault’s location and security details.” Rachel swallowed hard, nodded. “Good.” She looked to the others in the room, “Rachel and I will secure Andersson and report what we learn as soon as possible. Until then, stay vigilant.”

With that the assembled parties dispersed. Most left through the basement entrance. The others sank deeper into its shadows or labyrinthine blue-print. Soon, only Rachel and Lex were left in the main room. Lex deactivated the projector as Rachel rose from the stinking couch.

“Alex–” Lex glared. She corrected herself, “Lex. Why me? Why not someone more capable?”

Lex was firm, sincere, “Because I don’t trust you alone with my people. And recognizing you will confuse Ville long enough for me to eliminate his security detail.”

Rachel chewed her bottom lip, “You killed my sister. Then you have the nerve to say I’m the one that can’t be trusted?”

The tendons in Lex’s jaw tightened, shone through what light dotted her face, “Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness. You’re valuable– to us, and to the Collective. At least if you’re here, you’re more likely to remain intact. But don’t think for a second I won’t cut your throat if I suspect treachery.” Lex stepped past Rachel, shoved her way out the door and into the rain, “Come on, or we’ll be late.”

A quarter of an hour later the two stood beneath an awning in a central district of town.Neon and LED shines sliced through the endless, warm down-pour. Clearly whatever force controlled the Pacific’s Typhoon season had seen fit to unleash an early attempt to drown the city. In its midst, both Lex and Rachel were caught, the latter soaked to the bone for lack of the former’s leather coverings.

“What do I do?”

“If our intel is accurate, in five minutes Andersson’s limo will arrive outside that building,” she said with a nod to a massive, television broadcasting building across the street. “He’ll be ready to review the latest advertising numbers and ensure they match with his projections.”

“And you want to get him before he goes in,” Rachel surmised.

Lex replied with a sole nod, explained, “The attacks on the three Collective members will be synchronized to ensure any security response is chaotic, disorganized. With too many places to be at once, it will take the GSS that much longer to deploy.”

The two women went silent under the gentle cascade of rain and tinny downspouts that mixed with near-audible shifts of the LED screens above. Together the sounds formed discordant symphonies of nature and technology.

Distant tires splashed beneath a quiet, electric whir. Lex rocketed into the shadows of a dumpster’s alcove across the street, hunkered down to wait for her opening. The limo splashed into view, rolled up outside the station’s brightly-lit entrance. A door opened on the rear, passenger-side; three men stepped out with large rifles, formed a wall around the door. A lanky, blond-haired man emerged behind.

A subtle movement from the shadows Lex occupied signaled Rachel. She started forward in hysterics. She stumbled across the road, groped for and around the limo’s trunk. The rifles trained on her as she blubbered incoherent cries over the security detail’s shouts. Andersson recognized the more youthful of the Dahl Twins, waved off his guards to grip Rachel’s arms. Lex watched, waited. They exchanged frantic words, the security detail distracted with their eyes locked on Rachel.

Lex slipped around the corner, sidled along the building. No-one noticed her, not even Rachel. She sobbed about Calista’s murder, enthralled the four men. Lex moved from cover, drew her blades slowly. In a flash, two of the three guards were decapitated. Their feet slipped, bodies fell in writhing seizures. Blood spurted from stumps of former necks. The katanas angled back for the third man. A foot dislodged his balance. He smacked the limo’s side. The blades went into his torso, out again to shatter the vehicle’s side-window.

Andersson stumbled back, tripped over the curb. He soaked his back-half in a puddle as he scurried back on his hands. Rachel retrieved a GSS rifle, trained it on Lex. There was an obvious moment of conflict before she swiveled, aimed the gun on Andersson.

“Ville,” Rachel said. Lex stomped past, re-sheathed her blades. “We need to talk.”

Lex grabbed the man’s lapel, planted a heavy fist against his face, and knocked him out cold.