Short Story: Liberty’s Fist

Liberty occupied a bench in the village square, staring forward. Her vantage gave her views over the assembled crowd, their pumping fists. She need not hear their shouts or chants, they were etched on the air, implicit to every breath. Her face meanwhile, was empty, expressionless: mind still spun from the goings-on.

The gallows had been oiled in preparation, the rope made new and fast around the girl’s neck.

Couldn’t have been more than thirteen, Liberty knew. Soot and grime-tattered clothing said she’d hung in a cell far too long. Poverty was smeared across her face. Suffering stamped in her downcast eyes.

It will finally be over.

That’s what she would be telling herself, Liberty knew. To make it easier. A life of suffering, of anguish, of nothingness, would finally end. They’d no longer blame her for their ills. She, in turn, would no longer suffer for those she neither knew nor understood.

At last, there would be no more pain. At last there would be peace.

Liberty grit her teeth; the Alderman himself, Chief Village-Bastard had come to read the proclamation. Even across the square, sleaze oozed off him like every whore-monger for power. She might as well be beside him for all his tainted corruption on the air.

His voice boomed from his man-sized blowhole with only the slightest hint of joviality, “By order of the power vested in me by his majesty the Emperor Keylon of Ardania, I hereby sentence you to death by hanging for the crimes of witchcraft and sorcery, harboring of seditious dissent, and the daily-theft of bread from the bazaar. You are hereby ordered to hang from the neck until dead. Have you any words in your defense?”

She didn’t breathe.

Liberty felt a tooth chip from her jaw grinding tension. The sick bastard was taking his time, enjoying it. He was drawing out the silence to revel, she could take it no longer.

A flash erupted in the sky over the gallows. The hangman and his master froze, aghast. The crowd hissed terror. Each man, woman, and child, froze. The flash resolved from a blinding orb into a light shaped so bright it stole the sky from the sun. Its form was that of a woman, decidedly more fearsome than any villager had seen. She was both beautiful and terrifying; her body muscled as befit a woman of war and strength, brutality and murder. Her face was marked, but too opaque: the longer one stared to make out its shape, the more they saw only swirling details in a sea of beautiful faces themselves.

Liberty rose slowly to her feet.

A voice of terrifying resonance shook the very Earth beneath the village, “Cut her down at once or face the wrath of your Gods!”

The quaking threatened to tear the Earth asunder.

More figures took residence around the square, echoing the first’s final words. Three were women, their voices from the middle and upper registers of an unabridged disharmony over the male bass and baritone. Each was a striking specimen of Human perfection. Each, like the first, bore some weapon denoting their skill in battle; bow, spear, shield, axe, staff. Each too, were dressed in thick hides infused and trimmed as with metal-scales and materials of undeniable strength.

A pause fell about about the square; a moment of hesitation in which the assembled Human minds fought to grasp the proceedings. Then, the hangman drew a knife, and took a step to cut the rope. His master cupped his bicep roughly.

“Heresy! Witch! You conjure this with your dark magicks.” The girl looked as if already dead.

“You dare defy us!?” The Gods roared with a grating dissonance. The girl remained still.

“Vile tricks. Fiendish. Foolish girl.”

Liberty lifted her hood, her face hidden but for her snarling mouth. A rip in the air left a wave of light that disintegrated in a blink.

A hooded figure appeared on the gallows behind the Alderman, still frozen in place, impotently raging to recapture the crowd. A collective gasp told him he was losing them still. The figure pivoted an arm around his throat. The girl stirred. The Alderman was silent, eyes widened and mouth gaping. The figure dropped him as so much refuse; blood draining from his neck while the crowd’s panic erupted.

Liberty was across the Gallows, hood threatening to fall. The Hangman raced her. The Gods screamed terrifying commands that threatened to tear the Earth with their resonance. Liberty couldn’t care less. She was only steps away.

The Hangman won, reached the lever. Liberty leapt, one arm outstretched. The Hangman threw the lever. The floor dropped, rope tightened. The girl’s eyes met Liberty’s: terror and betrayal, newly-found and dashed hopes, all within.

Liberty collided with the girl mid-air. The rope pulled taught. Her blade sliced. In a blink, the warp of air and light appeared and disappeared. The Gods roared fury. Explosions rocked the distance. The crowd stampeded in terror.

Liberty landed outside the village, just on the edge of the forest, wind knocked from her lungs. The girl choked likewise beneath her, fingers grappling the tightened noose and wrestling it away. Liberty, breathless, quickly regained her footing. She bolted, pulling the girl up, off into the woods.

They ran until the girl’s adrenaline could no longer support her. Liberty stopped only at a cry to find she’d drug her several feet. She panted an apology and examined her for any serious injuries.

When they’d finally regained their wits, Liberty explained, “If you’re to be branded a witch, you’re to be raised as one.”

The girl’s doe-eyes, until now hidden by circumstance rose to meet hers, “I… I don’t understand. I’m not a–”

Liberty knelt beside the girl, hand on her shoulder, “You will be.”

She clearly did not understand, etched as it was in the pain on her face, the utterly confused hopelessness.

Liberty’s eyes softened, “What is your name, child?”

“Meuz,” she said shyly.

Muse,” Liberty muttered under her breath. “Meuz, I am Liberty–”

Dogs howled not far enough off. Panic was still going strong, but the Alderman had been murdered. Whether by Gods or man, the village was in a turmoil that wouldn’t end any time soon. In retribution, any strangers would be rounded up as scapegoats– rightful or not. The smoke drifting toward them demanded it.

Liberty helped Meuz to her feet once more, the pair reinvigorated by their sudden, encroaching reality. “We must go, but know this, your journey has yet to begin. Should you ever return here, these louts will know the Witch Meuz’s power like that of the Gods they’ve denied.”

“But why, Liberty? How?” She pled.

“Because the Universe demands it.”

Short Story: The Worst in Us

She was fifteen; old enough to know right from wrong. What she aimed to do was wrong. Even in the withered husk of society, it was wrong. She couldn’t help it now. Not even if she’d wanted to. She’d made a deal. Maybe afterward she’d care about right and wrong again. Find herself at peace with things. Maybe not.

Allison Hartley was about to murder someone. The teenager’s time and place were decidedly amoral. It wasn’t merely a place of warped morals, but one sans them. Simultaneously, and paradoxically, they were the only thing keeping the world from going to more shit than it had. It wasn’t the whole of society preventing it though. Rather, it was the few that managed to hold themselves to a code, a set of rules. Allison had always been one. That was different now. Would be forever.

Thus her premeditated violation felt a depraved kind of original sin. Whatever the repercussions, it had to been done. No-one would’ve disagreed with that. That is, if she ever planned to tell anyone. That had been part of the deal too: do what needed to be done, keep her mouth shut, and she learned the truth.

Nora had made the deal. Since the world went to hell, Allie had been watching over her. Their parents had been at the refugee camp. They and thousands of others were bombed by “the enemy,” whoever they might’ve been. All Allison knew was she and her little sister were suddenly alone in a burning world. Allison would’ve been better prepared if they’d been honest. Love brings out the worst in us, she knew. Their parents’ lies about reality had eventually forced her into fighting fire with fire.

Three years of utter hell had taught of nothing in life as absolute. That much should’ve been made clear the day they were sent to the refugee camp. Instead, Mom and Dad were quiet. They were quiet through school closing, and the imposed curfews. Twelve-year old Allie was completely oblivious to the world. Fifteen year old Allie was still traumatized by it, daily. She’d had no idea the real extent of damage being done to the world.

Radio and television had become spin machines. She didn’t know it, but she learned it later. They’d turned ongoing narratives from truth into what bolstered wartime support. The family reached the camp, and a matter of hours later the illusions shattered around Allie and Nora. Though the latter was still lost then, she sensed the beginning of realities eventually forced on them. The most prevalent, of course, was Humanity’s depravity– which she was once again a victim of.

A fiery sunset had bled from a dusty horizon as Nora limped up the mound of rubble. It marked the entrance to their home and hide-out. It wasn’t much more than a corner room in a bombed-out building, but a thick, steel door made it impenetrable for anyone hoping to get in. Solid, concrete walls kept them from the elements too, only a small, barred window at its high-ceiling to vent fires for cooking or heating. Allie knew the place was a police station’s set of cells, but the rest of the world was a prison enough that it didn’t bother her.

She’d left the door open to listen to the rare, slap of rain, and keep her ears peeled for the crunch of glass or gravel on their sound-traps. The tell-tale scatter of gravel said someone was sliding down into the bombed-out building. She shouldered her ancient rifle, threw open the door, ready to kill.

Nora was lying face down in glass and gravel, back laden with a pack of supplies. At only twelve, she could already hump the weight of a soldier three times her size for twice as long. That perseverance was the only way either of them had survived.

Allie scrambled for her side, helped her up, neck whipping to eye their surroundings. She fitted Nora’s then heaved them both toward the door. She laid her sister on the makeshift bed of sleeping bags and star, then dropped the back to bolt the door.

It was hours before Nora awoke. She pled for water. Her whole body shook with fresh pain. Something had happened, but Nora’s pistol was still full, her pack too. No raider did this: their ilk struck on the roads, took what they could, then killed their victims in fear of retribution. Nora was still alive, her supplies untouched. Whatever had happened was quick, without obvious resistance.

She finally began to speak, her eyes distant. It was the same stare Allie had seen after they’d watched their parents swallowed by bomb-fire. “I’ve done it a million times. Never like this.” Her bottom lip trembled. “I… I didn’t even know he was there.”

“Who, Nora?”

She teared up with a fierce refusal. “I can’t. I can’t tell you. If I tell you’ll want to tell someone else. You have to kill him.”

Allie’s eyes sparked with sibling guardianship, “Then I will, Nora.”

She refused to speak further, sobbed. A small, dirty hand, lifted the edge of her frayed t-shirt: her dirt-covered navel glistened with “Whore” carved in drying blood by a shaking, old blade. Each letter was torn fabric, the flesh only just coagulated.

But Nora’s hands continued to her pants, slid them down. Allison’s hate-filled eyes went blank, unable to muster even fury at the senselessness inflicted. Etched across her groin, the letters more jagged than before– from Nora struggling– were the words “use me.” The letters extended across her whole groin area, the vulva beneath swollen, bloody, bruised.

The atrocity didn’t need to be named. Neither did the punishment.

She managed to coax Nora into letting her further examine her. She helped her back into her clothes, and medicated her with old, bitter pain-pills. Allie coddled her into sleep, deducing what had been left out. She’d sent Nora to a nearby settlement to procure supplies. They’d done it a million times before. On the way back, she’d been grabbed, assaulted. Again, it clearly wasn’t bandits. That left only a traveler or an inhabitant between the two places.

She scrawled a note to Nora, left quietly; I will.

Half-way to the village, it dawned on her. The small, rocky hill was a hovel: an old manlived there. He’d seemed harmless enough, if slightly insane from time’s rigors. He’d only ever interacted with the sisters once. Hardly enough to kill him over, but enough to sneak in and interrogate him over.

The small hovel glowed from a fire-pit in its center. Flames spit and nipped at the air, cast grotesque shadows across the walls. Allie sneaked into a darkened corner, able to see him across the low-light of the room. He slept like a child might after a long day of play– how they had before. Children didn’t do that anymore. Now Nora never’d sleep without the terrible memories of what someone had done. It gave her fuel to move on.

Allie crept past the fire-pit. The old man grunted in his sleep. He rolled toward her. She dodged behind a makeshift table of half-rotten cardboard. Then, she saw it: a deluded shrine of drawings and black and white Polaroids of Nora and Allie, both clothed and nude. Allie’s face was cut or crossed out, but the old creep had managed to find or repair an old camera. He’d stalked them more than a few times, evidently following them to the nearby river where they bathed.

Her teeth clamped down, eyes took in the few valuables stolen from the girls. Presumably, he’d taken them at the river, when they weren’t watching. Allie and Nora thought they’d lost them. Evidently not.

Atop the pile of underwear, trinkets, and god-awful smelling things, was an old knife. Its cracked, dull edge still bore Nora’s dried blood. The clothing beneath it was as stained as Nora’s innocence. Allie nearly chipped teeth. Her hand clasped the knife, obscene atavism in her eyes. She sneaked toward the bastard…

She returned home to find Nora still asleep. The deal had been held to. When morning came, all that passed would see him crucified, castrated, genitals hanging from his mouth, and “rapist” carved into his groin above mangled flesh. If he wasn’t dead by then, someone would gladly spend a bullet.

Allie rinsed the last of the blood from her hands with a water-bottle, then settled into bed beside Nora. She held her tight, silent tears running down her face. Love brings out the worst in us, she knew, but that wasn’t always a bad thing.

Hijack: Part 11 (Conclusion)

11.

Carl’s house was a little place on the edge of Oakton and Masseville. It was once a nice, quaint place to live. Following his divorce, Carl’d let the place go. The yard was a jungle of knee-high thistle and rough grasses. Even its expertly-maintained past couldn’t downplay its abandoned look. The beat-up Chevy rolled up to the house and came to a stop. It’s occupants look to Gail.

She glanced back at Marla, then to Nora beside her, “Are we covered here?”

“Yes and no,” Nora admitted. “But we know he’s ready to run. We can’t risk losing him.”

Gail needed clarity. “How d’we know that?”

“He was in the garage earlier. Darian and I were combing engine parts. He would have known we were going to find the chip. He’s anticipating something. He’ll be ready to flee.”

Gail nodded. “Marla, go around back. Make sure he doesn’t sneak out. Let’s do it.”

The car’s doors opened, shut with intent. Marla sneaked for the far-side of the gravel driveway and disappeared. Gail and Nora swished through thigh-high grasses, toward the front of the house. The door opened. Carl’s figure hustled into the night, oblivious to their presence. Gail could just make out the bag slung over his shoulder. He angled for the driveway.

“Stop right there!” Nora shouted, holding her badge up. “OPD. Lower your belongings slowly and put your hands behind your head.”

A bright light flared on. Carl swiveled at them. The motion-activated flood-lights blinded the women. Gail’s sight returned: Carl’s bags were on the ground. His body leaned into a double-barrel shotgun.

“On your knees, both of you!” He shouted, finger poised. Nora didn’t carry a weapon. Her face said as much. Carl barked, clacked the double-hammers, “Do it!”

They knelt in the long grass. Its stalks stabbed their chests and necks. Gail shouted, “Put the gun down, Carl. You don’t want to do this.”

“Hell I don’t!” He sneered. “Twenty years of driving! Now they’re phasing us out. ‘N all you want’s to go down fighting. You’re a cunt, Gail. You always been a stubborn, hot-headed cunt. You don’t know shit about driving.”

“This isn’t about me, Carl.”

Nora added, “You’re looking at time. We have evidence. We’re building a case. Killing us doesn’t change that. Don’t make this harder on yourself.”

“The fuck would you know about it?” Carl blurted, turning the gun on Nora. “Your fancy-ass college education doesn’t know spit about bleeding or sweating for a living. How would you feel, huh? How’d you feel if all your life came crashing down? Then– then– you find out you’re being replaced by machines?”

“That’s not what’s happening, Carl,” Gail insisted. “I’m not selling the company.”

The shotgun trembled in his raging hands. He growled, “Don’t you get it, Gail? You can’t stop it. All you can do’s hope to hold out long enough. Hope to walk away saying you fought the good fight. And who takes the hit? You? No!” He spit at the ground in front of her. His tongue was acidic. Venomous spite misted the air, “No. It’s us that takes the hit. All that time between those offers. Waiting. Hoping. Thinking you’ll find a way to hold on. Keep the world from changing. And all the time those offers keep getting smaller. The noose gets a little tighter. The company’s a little less profitable. Whose gonna’ lose their paycheck, their benefits, when the garage goes under? When the machines take over? It won’t be the owners, it’ll be the drivers. The Union boys. ME!”

“Is that why you killed Buddy, Carl? Why you tried to kill me?” Gail asked. A shadow flitted behind him. Gail caught it, did her best to keep him distracted. “You made a deal with M-T, didn’t you? Plant the chips, they write you a check. That’s it, isn’t it? How much, Carl? How much did they give you to murder your friends? Did they promise you’d get away with it, too? Answer me!”

“You think you’re my friend, Gail?” He threw his head back with a laugh. “The only person you’re friends with is yourself. And only because you don’t realize how god-damned unbearable you are.” He re-shouldered the shotgun, “I’ll be doin’ the world a favor takin’ you out.”

His finger touched the trigger. A heavy rock slammed down against his head. He crumpled like a rag doll, unconscious. Marla tossed the rock aside, grabbed up the shotgun.

“Son of a bitch!” She spit with adrenaline.

Nora hurried over to slap hand-cuffs on Carl. Gail took the shotgun from her, “Nice job. Took long enough though.”

She heaved a sigh to calm herself, “I needed to hear him say it. We know the truth now.”

“I need to call this in,” Nora said. “We’ll have to book him, but the charges will stick ‘til we get the rest of the evidence. He’ll never see daylight again.”

Gail helped her to lift and carry Carl to the car. Marla rushed over, opened a door. They stuffed him inside, dispersed for different doors. They climbed in to head for the police station. Nora dialed her cell-phone.

The beater rocketed along, fueled as much by Gail’s fury as the need to exact revenge. Nora’s voice was a steady stream flowing into a phone to reveal everything. Having a gun pointed at her fueled her as much as it had Gail. Nora’s usually silken voice was grating from fury. She relayed everything, ending with a request to have a cell ready.

Gail wasn’t sure what would happen to Carl, but the Union wasn’t about to get near his defense. If the evidence held up, he’d be defended by lawyers bought with M-T’s money. Then again, if they wanted deniability, they might throw him to the wolves just for getting caught red-handed and pants-down.

Gail’s fury was only invigorated as they passed one of M-T’s A-I rigs. That the bastards had the gall to run them past her now was the ultimate slight. Auto-guided by software or not, it made her jaw clench. She grit her teeth, accelerated along the empty, rural road. Flashing hazards glowed ahead. Yellow emergency lights splayed across the roads and trees. A jack-knifed rig blocked both lanes just past an intersection and stop-sign. Gail rolled to a stop, hesitated. Nora eyed her carefully.

“Gail? Just go around.”

She glanced back at Marla and Carl; the latter was still unconscious, slumped against the left window. Marla was poised forward, squinting at the rig.

“One of yours?” Nora asked.

Gail was focused on the tow-rig in the oncoming lane. It was a new model Kenworth, based around the T680 body style. Its massive tow crane was still flat across its rear-end. Its lights spun with alternating splatters on the rig-body behind it– a similar T680 type. Her gut wrenched into a knot.

She choked out words, “Oh shit.”

Nora’s heart leapt into her throat, “What?”

Marla craned her neck around the side of the seat. Her eyes widened. Nora caught it, about to repeat herself. She saw it too: no driver. None for the tow-truck. None for the rig itself. The road was completely deserted. Nora squinted harder. Little bars were spaced along the trucks at bumper-level. More were doubled there and near the roof of the trailer. A-I sensors. Nora looked to Gail, her eyes focused on the rear-view mirror. Blinding headlights charged at them. A flash in the side-mirror caught the others’ attention.

Shouts went through the car to run or drive. Gail stared. Waited. It was obvious now. Far from being caught off-guard, Gail was going to use it to her advantage. Screaming apexed in her ears, rebounded off windows and doors. The face of the A-I rig sharpened as it bore down. Its lights blinded Nora and Marla, left imprints of high-beams and sensor strips.

Gail breathed. “Checkmate.”

Her foot hit the gas. The Chevy lurched, spun left through the intersection. It took a few yards of road before its brakes clamped down in a skidding stop. Exhaust and air brakes screamed and growled through the night. Gail wrenched around. The A-I rig was attempting the turn. It could never make it at such a speed. It jack-knifed, slid in an L toward the intersection.

Its software tried to compensate, lost equilibrium. It teetered at the intersection, overturned, rolled. A gut-splitting gnarl of metal and shattered glass echoed from the intersection. The charging rig rolled, smashed the other two at top speed. The tow-rig was demolished, along with the trailer of the second M-T rig. The twisted steel flipped and crashed. It ricocheted along the rural road, rebounded off trees and aged asphalt.

The trio stared at the wreck, frozen.

Then, the jack-knifed rig winked. It’s lights flickered on and off. Gail swallowed, dropped her boot on the gas. The M-T rig lurched to life, freed from its offending trailer. It revved after them like a locomotive rising to full-power. Gail’s beater struggled for higher gears. Her arms locked in front of her, knuckles white on the wheel.

“Jesus, Gail. Faster!” Marla cried.

Nora was kneeling in her seat, looking back dumbfounded. The rig’s high-beams lit, forced her back around. Her hands trembled to affix her seat-belt. “W-what do we do?”

“Get the fuck out of here!” Gail shouted, one eye on the rear-view.

She threw the car around a corner, lost traction on two wheels. The other two squealed to compensate. Old suspension groaned with a wheezing engine that sprinted for top speed. Air brakes sounded as the A-I rig rounded the corner nearby, fought to regain its pursuit.

“Shit,” Gail breathed.

She repeated the word over and over. Needles stabbed her foot from her pressure on the accelerator. They shot up her leg, into her torso, settled in her chest. It heaved with panting terror. However it was happening, the A-I was pursuing them. There was no escape.

Headlights flashed in the distance ahead. Another M-T rig manifested from the darkness. It barreled from beneath a canopied intersection, weaved into Gail’s lane. She was dimly aware of instructions and frightful cries. Her mind was hammer-down, fighting to slalom its way past certain death. Coupled with a complete loss as to escape, she almost froze.

The rigs charged them from both sides. One nudged the Chevy’s rear. It fishtailed with a burst of speed. The rig dropped back to compensate. It roared back up to her bumper. The one ahead stared them down, grew larger. It readied to sandwich them into the other. Gail tasted diesel fuel and blood on the air. The rigs would stop at nothing to end them. Whatever was controlling them wouldn’t rest until the witnesses to M-T’s crime were lost.

She felt the rumble of engines, sensed them ready to sandwich her. At the last possible second, she jerked the wheel left. The rear-right fender clipped a rig’s fairing. Marla and Nora screamed. Gail tensed up. The Chevy three-sixtied into the left lane. Wheels spun along grass at the top of a ditch. Grass and mud splattered the air. The two rigs collided head-on.

In the split second before steel was engulfed in flame, she saw the thwack of antennas. Heat of ignited fuel and oil tainted the car’s innards. Gail fought to regain control. Their spin arced toward the trailer of the wrecked rig. It missed by a hair’s breadth, came to a stop on the far-side of the road.

“GPS,” she said quickly. “They’re tracking us. Shut your phones off.”

“Gail!” Marla shouted, fumbling for her pocket.

More headlights were closing from three sides. The sat at the edge of an intersection. Gail’s eyes widened. She slammed on the gas. The Chevy’s tires spun, tearing away dirt and sprinting through and away.

“Shut them off! Now!” Gail ordered, fishing out her cell-phone.

The headlights closed, merged into a line of three-wide rigs. They expertly avoided spilling into ditches. She thumbed her phone’s off-switch, watched the wall of steel and fuel. It gained ground, closed. She expected to see it drop away. Instead, it continued gaining. Her stomach and heart were in her throat.

“It’s not working!” Marla squealed.

Nora craned to watch the rigs. “A-anymore id-deas?”

It didn’t make sense. There was no other way to track them except…

“Carl!” she said suddenly. “It isn’t about us.” Marla was already fishing through his pockets. “They want Carl dead. M-T does. They’re sending the rigs after him. We’re caught in the middle. They don’t want him telling anyone.”

“Shit,” Marla said, fumbling to pry apart the phone’s case. “It’s locked I can’t–”

The steel wall slammed their rear-end. The phone fell, slid under Nora’s seat. A din of various cries and demands rose. Marla ducked down, clawed for the phone. Her fingers caught its edge. The wall rammed them again: the phone jerked away.

“I… can’t–”

Metal crunched. The Chevy lurched again. The phone slid further under the seat. Marla’s hands struggled with her seat-belt. It gave way. Another ram threw her into the seat-back.

“Marla!?” Gail said, terrified. “Are you-”

“I got it!” She slammed it against the door to crack open the case, tore the back off the phone. She pried out the battery. “Shit, they’re still–”

“The sensors,” Nora cut in. “Break line-of-sight.”

Gail rubber-necked the area; they were in rural Masseville. The place was mostly forests and open fields. She spied a break in the trees. Dense wood and canopy gave way for a hundred yards to a wire-fenced field. It was worth a shot.

The Chevy’s engine topped out, screaming. The right rig lurched, slammed the bumpers together. The center rig made an attempt to get alongside her. She wouldn’t let it. The car swerved back and forth, kept the wall in check. Their software compensated. With a final jerk of the wheel, the Chevy ramped off the road, caught air. A back wheel tore down the wire fence, drug it along behind them. The car plowed through the empty field into the obscurity of the trees.

One of the rigs tried to follow. It caught air. Its gravity shifted. The trailer went up, over. The fifth-wheel was wrenched clean off. The rig landed wheels-up. The trailer splayed across what was left of the open ground. All at once, the remaining rigs skidded to a screaming stop, their lights and engines shut down. Gail’s terror finally bled in. She drove on, dragging the fence.

Her heart managed to slow itself enough for logic to take over again. They needed to stop, get the fence free, get Carl to the police. She slowed to a stop and the trio of women staggered out on rubber legs, awestruck by fires that glowed randomly in the distance. Marla vomited. Nora tended to her.

Gail stared, stilling her trembling limbs. So much destruction. All for money, power.

“M-T’s got a lot to answer for,” Nora said finally, returning to her side.

Gail nodded, eased into motion. Together, she and Nora pulled the bit of stuck fence from the bumper, then took a moment to breathe. Whatever would come of it, one thing was certain; M-T’s so-called accident-free rigs could now be linked to this. Only time would tell if the charges stuck.

Epilogue

After seeing Carl to the local lock-up, Nora and Marla returned to the garage while Gail gave a statement to a Detective. Though it had yet to be proven, rumors of foul-play against M-T soon came to light. They spread like wild-fire through the net and media journals that saw them as a great way to catch views and strengthen readership. The knife of publicity cut both ways.

Almost immediately after returning to the garage, Darian confirmed to Gail a connection to M-T. The chips he and Nora had removed had been hacked, and after a preliminary examination, contained identical code written for use in A-I rigs– the same code both patented and owned by M-T. Subsequent investigation confirmed the source: the chips were manufactured and distributed by the same subsidiary, and were identical, to those used in the damaged rigs found on the roads.

The media ate up the stories. M-T’s spin-doctors declined all comment. Their silence proved their already obvious guilt. The Federal Grand Jury scheduled to meet. Also scheduled, for expert and witness testimonies, were Gail, Darian, Marla, and Nora. They would do their best to damn M-T. Carl too: He’d been persuaded to testify once it was clear M-T would not rescue him.

Unfortunately, none of those facts changed what Gail recognized as true: Bud Ferrero’s death was an omen of things to come– for Lone-Wolfe, for the industry. She was standing over Bud’s freshly-marked grave, Marla beside her, when the epiphany hit. The funeral had months before, and the media-circus had long forgotten him. It still raged elsewhere, but the reason for the initial tent-pitching was no more a thought than Bud himself. Nothing had been concluded. Nothing would. That was the point of the circus. It merely went on.

Likewise, progress would not stop. Gail knew it now. She stood, hands in her jean jacket, feeling more sentimental than ever in her life– either from depression, or Marla’s daughter-like presence.

“Carl was right about one thing…”

She stared at Bud’s epitaph: “He delivered love to our hearts.”

Marla sniffled, eyes teary. “What do you mean?”

For once, Gail didn’t mind the tears. She’d have added to them if it weren’t for the stiff upper-lip she’d cultivated. She knelt before the head-stone, “We can’t change the future. We can’t avoid it. Everything has its time. Its season.”

Marla’s face showed hints of confusion, sorrow. “I don’t understand.”

Gail winced, “One day the drivers will be gone. The culture with them. All of it will just be another footnote to history, like milkmen and carrier-pigeons. The most we can do’s try to make up for it ‘til then. When it happens, we’ll do our best to avoid hardship.”

Marla was quiet, thinking about it. Gail sensed it, kept her mind on the same frequency. It was an eternal story of society, the making way for the new by discarding the old. Lamp-lighters or milkmen, cobblers or drivers, it didn’t matter. Some things faded. Where the people went, she wasn’t sure, but she had a feeling she’d find out soon.

She pulled her hand from her pocket, set a small, toy-rig at the base of Bud’s grave. The T680 was the same color as Bud’s. For the first time since the accident, Gail’s stiff-lip trembled. A tear formed in her eye, slipped down her cheek. She rose solemnly with Marla at her side, and turned away.

Short Story: No Choice in the Matter

His heart pumped fire, a war-charge. His feet thumped damp Earth, beat a near supersonic rhythm jet-fueled by adrenaline. He’d have panted terror if it weren’t for fear that it might slow him down. Instead, he took half breaths, held them. His temples pounded. Brain half-suffocated brain. He didn’t care. Higher-brain functions weren’t important now. So long’s his heart kept his blood moving, his legs would keep working.

He slid down a hill, pivoted, sprang across a ditch. He landed, still running. Blood-hounds barked and howled over grumbling ATVs and whining dirt-bikes. Moonshine and gunpowder pierced the air, inflicted by the clothing of his pursuers. He wasn’t even sure how he’d escaped. It didn’t matter. Nothing but running did.

They’d tied him up days ago, had been starved and tortured him since. Mason wasn’t sure who, but knew they represented the less-enlightened sect of populous in these parts. They were almost fanatically devoted to eradicating those unworthy of their antiquated, myopic lifestyle. Mason knew what his crime was. They’d bludgeoned it into him. “Choosing” to love a man was the highest disrespect to them. Never mind the fact he hadn’t chosen a damned thing.

The assholes would’ve never been part of his thoughts. They weren’t either. Not until they started attacking him, anyway. He knew well enough they were a part of a local order of hicks– most-likely the Smith or Flynn clan. A few others like them inhabited the area, but none were so brazen as to kidnap and torture a man.

Mason and his husband arrive home one day to find a giant swastika scorched into their front yard. A giant, brown and white “FAG” burned beneath it. It was hardly clever. In the end, all it did was anger his neighbors. Even the less, “liberally-minded” cites of the American South would’ve cared so much. Saying that would’ve missed the point that current era was hardly any of the 1900’s. Even the more conservative folk– most elderly– didn’t care. He’d changed more than a couple minds on “his type” himself alone.

The his was even simpler than the why. It was all freedom, openness; most folk judged a man’s worth by the sweat on his brow. The rest didn’t care to know anyhow: It wasn’t their place to broach such uncouth topics. Changing minds became about how the sweat poured from the couple’s brows. If there was anything to either of them, it was hard-work. From the trades of carpentry and auto-maintenance, to their home renovation hobbies, to landscaping “FAG” from their yard with new sod, both men earned their respect.

Yet here he was: sprinting through back-assward woods. The snow-ball’s chance in hell of escape was as likely as his becoming another hate-statistic.

Engines revved. Dogs howled. Powder and booze-smells grew stronger. His heart readied to give out, accept death. His mind readied to watch on-high as his blackened and bruised body crumpled. The spatter of bloody knife-cuts across him were even less a choice than anything. He hadn’t chosen a damned thing. Never. The fucks behind him didn’t care in the least.

But he had to find Ben, had to reach him. He’d been working late, hoping for extra cash for their trip when Mason went missing. The hicks feared him. Ben was twice the size of even the largest captors, but all muscle. He could’ve punched a fist any one of ‘em Terminator-style. He tended toward pacifism though. All the same, had he been there, Mason would’ve never been caught off-guard. Never frozen. Never been jumped from behind and knocked unconscious to be tied up. It wouldn’t have happened. Mason’s state would’ve enraged Ben’s rare but fierce temper.

Mason wouldn’t go back, couldn’t. He wouldn’t lie down. Wouldn’t die. He’d never submit to another torture session. He’d kill himself before those bastards carved anything else into him. “Fag” was the least of it. The first cuts were quick, easy. Eventually, all of them were made with dull blades.

A passing gleam appeared through the trees. It curved away. Distant engines mingled with dogs and shouts. Mason’s heart nearly stopped. The rural highway to town appeared. He scrambled up-hill, more determined than ever. He bobbed and weaved through trees met asphalt. An old Bronco screeched to a stop, nearly hit him before the blue and red lights appeared. The deputy was out, gun in-hand before he realized the man’s sordid state.

The ATVs rumbled nearer. The dogs howled over Mason’s hysterical pleas. The cop ordered him into his truck, peeled out as the first pursuers appeared at the tree-line. He raised his rifle to fire, saw the lights, then grit his teeth and lowered his weapon. The Bronco raced to town and the hospital. The officer took Mason’s statement as he was tended to by a nurse. Ben appeared, face pale but with fiery eyes held at-bay by concern.

Ben hugged Mason carefully, parted only when the nurse insisted she finish stitching and bandaging him. The officer left a guard on the hospital room over night. He returned the next morning alerted the couple that all of the men Mason had reported were being arrested.

Justice was swift, as near to complete as it could be. Mason’s testimony was given via teleconference from his hospital bed. His injuries were too severe to allow him to leave. Nonetheless, his story went public. Debates of hate-speech, freedom, and crime were sparked locally and nationally. Most sided in the couple’s favor.

Mason, on the other hand, was merely glad to be alive. He was wheeled into his house, at Ben’s insistence, to find a giant banner welcoming him home. Beneath it, stood all of the couple’s friends and neighbors. If nothing else, Mason was who he was, and most were grateful for that. No matter what others felt for a moment Mason knew, if given a choice, he’d have chosen to be himself– if only to selfishly retain the love that welcomed him home.

Bonus Poem Double Feature: Part 2- Futility

Vigilante,
Closing in on a candlelight vigil,
spies the masked villain,
waiting in the wings for his next victim,
and so strikes with the power of voice,
until fear eviscerates the villain’s volition.

Meanwhile,
across a scarred city in moonlight,
is a deranged would-be protector-man,
whose only intention is that of the crime of murder.
After, he’ll hide behind a shield of metal,
that prompts sounds of mangled meat.

Futility,
is seen through the looking glass of fear,
where it is easy to mistake happenstance for fate,
but reality is Ralph, and harsh and frank,
and so long as we don’t allow ourselves to, we’ll never forget,
that there is no such thing, and thus our own futures formulate.

Speaking,
will forever be the path of sustenance,
as long as our reality is that of society.
We may remain in the din but reign in the silence,
for our hearts beat truest when in solace,
may they forever then, find written words for serene survival.

Bonus Poem Double Feature: Part 1- We’ll Rise as One

Sit upon a throne,
and taste the power.
Never atone,
be forced to cower.

Trampled underfoot,
we rise as one.
Whether in silence,
or loud as a gun.

Tell your lies,
and pull your strings,
for we despise,
unnatural things.

But sooner or later,
we’ll rise as one,
see through your smoke-screen
and your illusion.

Backed by hate,
and paper greed,
you deflate,
when faced with need

This world is ours.
We and it are one.
You will fade,
like the setting sun.

Opiate the masses,
with your vile succor,
separate the classes,
and rejoice with liquor.

But never forget,
we’ll rise as one,
against your kind’s regime,
forever, until we’ve won.

Bonus Short Story: Make It Worth It

“It began with an election,” she said, sparking a cigarette in a way that would’ve made James Dean jealous.

The old rebel could’ve never hoped to imitate it though; She had a booted-foot kicked up backward against a sheet-metal warehouse. Her leather pants were tucked into her calf-high boots, tight enough to say her legs were slender, beautiful, and chromed polyalloys– forced augments after an accident had claimed the real ones. The slightest hint of electric blue encircled her hazel irises, said she’d only elected to get her HUD installed afterward.

Her eyes morphed between brown and green with tilts of her head as she took a long drag. She flicked ash at the gusts with one natural hand, the other stuffed in her pocket and unmoving. Another bionic, claimed with her legs by the same awfulness. Like them, there was an angular rigidity to her otherwise soft, supple face, that screamed alloy bone-weaves. Maybe it was the cheeks, or forehead, their skin stretched a little too unnaturally to be organic.

She took another drag, and plumed smoke, “It began with an election, like most shit-storms in history. World War two did– pretty much anyhow. Hitler’s election sealed the world’s fate. Truman’s election sealed Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s fates. Even Vietnam’s fate was sealed by Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. Hell, the only reason Nixon pulled out was ’cause he was too damned corrupt to keep track of everything.”

She scoffed angrily, then flicked more ash.

“Whatever. Point is, everything begins with an election, or the lack thereof, or the assassination of some smart-mouthed politician. We humans and our trust… we really gotta’ learn we’re all out for ourselves. Even I’m only telling you this for the sake of it not being forgotten, ’cause I don’t want it to be.”

Her lone audience member was inert, his HUD recording her every move and word.

She sighed, “Anyway, the great American hive-mind voted in some businessman who’d gotten a wild hair up his ass to be president. He wanted to run the country like a business ’cause we had money problems. Big fuckin’ deal, who doesn’t? Problem was, just about every business he’d run, he’d actually run into the ground. Sorta telling looking back, huh?”

She was quiet for a moment, staring out across the horizon. Between the two sides of the harbor there were enough rundown, ramshackle, sheet-metal warehouses to prove her point. Behind them, their horizons rose in waves of countless skyscrapers. Corporate logos and digital billboards were splattered across them in sickening, electric colors from LEDs and Neon signs, offensive to the otherwise unrelenting gray that formed the sky.

It wasn’t hard for anyone to see the corporate-takeover she was referring to. It managed to enslave a good portion of the country to their government’s debts and screw everyone in the process.

“So this guy,” she said animatedly with her smoking hand. “Gets elected with all these promises to dick around certain, specific groups of people. The country fuckin’ eats it up, like he’s some god damned spunk-shooting john and they’re all his whores swallowing for their payday.”

She snorted a burst of air like a desperate laugh. Her lone audience member gave a silent chuckle to himself.

She continued astutely, “So they lap it all up, like good little servants, and the bastard gets his pay day. He gets on Capitol Hill, and lo and behold, suddenly he’s writing all these laws, submitting ’em to Congress.”

She flicked her cigarette to the ground, pulled another from her pocket with the other hand. The augment’s hand was a chrome skeleton, like an old terminator’s, but with forty-years and billions more in research behind it.

“All these laws getting submitted– and eventually passed– were fed through a Congress bought and paid for by companies lobbying for certain agendas to be passed.” She covered her mouth a moment to spark a lighter with her augment, then shoved both back into her pockets until it was time to flick ash again. “The country knew even then it was happening,” she admitted angrily. “But we couldn’t do anything. Congress had the power, and the corporations had Congress. Even the fuckin’ President helping them didn’t have more than the power of suggestion. But see, that was the thing, they gave him the suggestions. Then when the time came, he shoved those bills into the legal system and their cronies passed ’em without ever realizing they were being so wholly manipulated. Or if they did, they didn’t care. After all, billions were being paid out to collectively keep them complicit!”

She’d gotten herself into such a fury she was forced to pause to calm down. She did it over the span of a couple of drags. Then, with her augged hand, she produced a flask and threw down a gulp. She offered it to her listener, and he swigged with a “thank you” and a wince.

When she started up again, she was calmer, more morose, “So the corporations passed all these laws without any oversight or consideration of the “common” man. With a few, specific laws, they nullified almost all privacy, Citizen’s rights, and any hopes for peacefully assembling against them.”

She took another drink from the flask, then twisted the cap on with the hand, her cigarette between two, real fingers. She slipped it back into her pocket with a casual move and her augged hand disappeared again.

“A lotta’ people then thought people like me– the ones that saw where we were heading– were nut-job conspiracy theorists. You’d think after we’d been proven right about governmental agencies spying on us they’d have at least given us the benefit of the doubt. But nope. Instead we got the same old rigmarole. We were paranoid, lying, or just plain crazy.”

She stared off for a moment, her thoughts elsewhere. Her listener wondered if he should say something to keep her going, but she sighed, shook her head, and looked at the ground.“If we’d been smarter, maybe we’d have rebelled then and there.” Her eyes rose at him again, “But we didn’t. Instead, we took it, hoping one day things would turn out better. Now we’re all screwed. Over the course of a decade, the corporations and that lame-brain puppet we called a President completely overwrote the Bill of Rights and Constitution. Their friends on Wall Street and in their corporate towers were the only ones that benefitted. Meanwhile, we became slaves to corps, so weighed down by debt and fear of the monsters looming over us we’re petrified against action.”

She drifted off on this thought. Her distant look of depression told her listener that his only recourse was to speak. He wasn’t sure what to say though. Instead, he reiterated his initial question– the one that had led to the history lecture.

“So… that’s why you’re taking off? The corps? What about your friends? What about me?”

She sighed, “One day you’re gonna’ learn that the only reason we’re all poor and living on the street’s ’cause we weren’t ready to let go of things and fight back. When that day comes, maybe you’ll let go and take off too. Maybe then you’ll find me again. I hope so, anyhow. I like you, but you’re too young and I’m too old. The gap between’s still too much.”

He shook his head, “I think you’re just running off ’cause you’re afraid.”

She put her one, real hand on his shoulder, “We’re all afraid, Ra. What separates us is how we react to that fear, what it turns us into. Me? It’s turned me into a fighter. If it just made me afraid, why would I run off to follow rumors of the resistance?”

He couldn’t argue with her logic. Then again, she was a decade older than him, and in her late twenties. He’d only just turned eighteen. He doubted he’d ever be able to outsmart her, or even win an argument. Still, he loved her, and she seemed to care about him.

For this last point he made a case, “If you didn’t care you wouldn’t be lecturing me.”

She shrugged, “Maybe that’s the other reason I’m going. There’s no place for love in this world. No place for caring or kindness. It’s all cold calculus and living and dying by the dime. Maybe you oughta’ think about that. Maybe I do love you, and maybe that’s too hard to deal with until I do something to change things.”

He wasn’t sure if she was speaking in earnest or whether she was just trying to shake off his questions. He liked to think the former, if only to keep himself hopeful.

She flicked away her last butt, and lifted her pack to a shoulder, “One day, if the world’s meant to have love in it, we’ll find each other. Until then, stay safe, and know there’s at least one person out there fighting for you. So make it worth it.”

She turned away, her face steeled against undeniable emotions. Ra watched her leave, wondering if he’d ever see her again. At the very least, he knew for certain he’d follow her soon enough. One day, he’d find the courage to say enough was enough, and seek out the resistance. Until then, he’d remain forced to scour the ghettos for food and shelter, his only thoughts otherwise always of her. He’d make it worth it, no matter what. It was the least he could do for her.