Short Story: Bright Futures

Rain slicked roads shine from countless headlights of rush-hour victims, jam-packed in carpool vans. Faces of every age and origin stare in sordid envy; the auto-car lanes and their continuous stream of traffic. Never the same people, yet always the same car, and somehow always moving, passing. The spite in onlookers, palpable as their own lust for the speed they lack. The irony, not one of them having anywhere remotely important to go.

Certainly, not important enough to justify the strength of such emotions. Collectively however, Humanity had nowhere more important than where they were headed.

Jackstaff was the sort of city that made people believe in reincarnation and resurrections. It had lived and died, then lived again; all more than once. It was the American west-coat’s Phoenix, sinking into the decay of old age only to burn and be reborn newer, more beautiful than ever.

Its most recent rebirth, from a social standpoint, was still occurring. Arguments could be made the birth had passed and infancy had begun, but truly, the umbilical to the mother-event had yet to be cut. That metaphorically-great, burning bird, was the advent of a technology that had literally begun to revolutionize the world.

Like auto-cars, this tech everyone wanted, for one reason or another. And for one reason or another, few could afford access to it. At least, outside certain black markets still largely specializing in its prototypes.

The tech, known officially and “Integrated Optical and Aural Control Heads-up Displays,” was well-known in some circles (and fast becoming known in others) simply as HUDs. The first in a new generation of elective, assistive augmented implants, these “augs”were civilization’s first, true-to-life step toward post-humanism.

On smaller scales, that evolution had already been in human hands for centuries now. From Pasteur’s discovery of vaccines to Fleming’s creation of penicillin, to the gene therapies fighting or righting defects and deformities (however confined to the upper class). Until now however, nothing Humanity had done had quite crossed the boundaries, or blurred the lines of, what made one human.

Few knew this truth as well as Kayla Lexington.

At just over five-feet tall, Kayla was the perennial odd-child out. Since birth, Kayla had been too small, too smart, too mature, or too something to fit anywhere. In school she got by on a relatively dull and stable home-life, and eventually, recreational drug use.

She attended state college on scholarships and grants, too focused and overloaded with work to do much else. College ended and she found herself too inundated with job offers in various C-S positions to do anything but dive straight into work, responsibility, and adulthood.

That all changed at Arc Systems. Software Titan and recent partner to long-time Med-Tek demigod Cameron Mobility, hired Lexington in with a slew of others as part of Arc’s expansion into the same type of R&D that made Cameron a Trillion-dollar Mega-corp.

In effect, Arc needed programmers to help create, update, and secure the increasingly emergent field of bionic prosthesis. This new era of bionics, investors were assured, would revolutionize medical technology.

Kayla Lexington knew otherwise. She saw then, as others did later, that the field was uneven. Too closed and isolated between Cameron Mobility and its main competitor, Byrne Corp, the field could never thrive. Simply, the corps had rigged match after rigged match of an entire sport, andin a slow but certain destruction of the very game they relied upon to survive.

Conscious or not, it was done through various cost-cutting decisions, by myopic executives with hard-ons for money yet possessing no fiscal sense.

Fact was, no innovation had come from Med-Tek that wasn’t somehow connected to either company in over a century. Prosthesis R-and-D suffered as a result. The patients dreadfully so. The designers, engineers, coders, all of them were– had been— building off one another for generations.

Not an original idea had come about in more than twice Kayla’s life-time. For tech, that level of stagnation was as good as extinction. What it and everyone else involved, needed, was complete revitalization.

Lexington approached her superiors with a request; a small team of coders, designers, and engineers for less than a month, on a radical redesign of several well-established prosthetic models all-but-perfected, decades ago. Her aim was to show the proper talent in the right space, could do anything.

The request was granted on the grounds of her obvious intelligence, and the company’s possible gain, as well as the short time the diversion required. In short, because Kayla offered them the perfect cost/risk/time ratio.

With only a week of prep beforehand, she assembled her team and the various detail. She and her chosen few took to isolation, spending three uninterrupted weeks of meetings, brainstorming, and spit-balling in a mountain-ski resort.

The twenty-four year old woman without a place took to carving one out.

The days became invariably the same; rising for four-star resort-meals between bouts of meetings finely interspersed with Kayla’s rigid adherence to down-time. In most instances, hot tubs and heated pools amid frigid air; or snowboarding and skiing via the company’s blank-check; lounging and gaming, drinking or drugging in the meantime.

As much as she insisted on that down time, she too, insisted on the rigid adherence to work, meetings, designs, arguments. Even if unstructured, more open-air and brainstorming sessions, she ensured everyone knew their importance and attended. Given what she’d provided, the team obliged.

Even decades later, Kayla Lexington remembered the night it became clear. The night she knew that uneven field was the result of something deeper– the night she first dreamt the post-human dream.

Distant diamond-dust glittered with the first rays of moonlight beyond floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding doors, framing her temporary wooden balcony. Earthen warmth from wood set off the perpetual winter beyond, hiding even the faintest glow of the resort below. Kayla was nude.The cleaning girl she’d taken to likewise behind her, watching from the fur-lined bed.

Hardly her first or last experience with a woman, Kayla still found something summed up in her– what had caught her eye about her. What it was,really, couldn’t be explained until later.

Cara was pretty but rougher– the type whose potential partners often fled from intimidation before opening up. Kayla was certain she was younger than she’d said, even less experienced than could be mistaken for. Yet, she was an entirely devoted lover. Kayla guessed they could’ve shared a one-night stand and she’d have shown just as much selflessness.

Yet her world– its society– demanded everything about her not only should not exist, but could not exist. And still she did.

The mountaintops dissolved before Kayla as she brokered an image of not only her future, but that of Humanity’s:

Arc’s group had only a few days left. By then the company would sink or swim with Kayla’s budding-career. Unfortunately, nothing they had yet would prevent that. As a result, the pressure was mounting. Her own tension, peaking.

If her choice of partner had been any more or less innocuous, or Cara even a modicum different than she was, Kayla knew history would never have taken its course. Fortunately for the world, Cara was herself

She spoke three seemingly innocent words, “Aren’t you happy?”

Their tone said all; told of constant pain, emotional and otherwise; habitual disregard for I and the knowledge that one day it might very well be all she knew; yet it told how she’d grown to accept that, moved on. Most of all, it told of a lost, wandering creature whom sought only to leave their mark in even one moment of happiness– joy– even if she couldn’t have it herself.

Something deeper stirred in Kayla Lexington then, something that didn’t quite make sense. A flickering film-reel of Humanity joined it; its masses undulating through time through traffic jams, clogged sidewalks, workers in mechanical motions.

It continued on, spiraling backward through eras of history she wasn’t sure she knew. Images depicting society’s evolution, but in reverse. Onward, back through eras of steam-trains disgorging crowds, to village-squares of huts overrun by crowds and haggling and hawking wares.

On and on it went until, perched just below the starry sky that burned despite the vision; two hairy creatures joined at the groin for no purpose beyond sheer, animal compulsion. It was then that she knew; Humans had changed.

And Cara proved it.

The undulating masses were no longer the hunter-gatherers of their ancestry. They were masses of cells amid faceless organisms; corporations, companies, governments, families. They were beyond what Humans had once been. As with all organisms that wished to survive nature, they’d been forced to evolve or die. Not only as one, but as their collective; Humanity.

She could think of no better example than her employers and her retreat; its very purpose was to combat stagnation with the search for vigor, revitalization. She saw only one path forward– for Cameron, for Arc, for society– and it came with two, hyphenated words; post-human.

The rest is history. Kayla answered Cara eventually, and more satisfactorily than the girl might’ve intended. Then, when her rigid schedule demanded it, Kayla left Cara smoldering in her room until she could return and reignite her. That last few days of that retreat were passed with tireless work.

When Kayla finally returned, Cara at her hip, she gave the corps what they’d paid for and demanded a raise. Then, she took control of the new Bio-Augment division of Arc-Cameron.

And somehow, even though it had taken its first steps into its new future, Humanity as a general rule knew only the envy of traffic-jam auto-cars– Ironic given how much brighter each person’s future now was, and how utterly blind they were to the dullness left behind…

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Short Story: Dead Gods

On-stage the band were throwing themselves into every lick and power-chord. The effort culminated in all the lasting effect of lint in wind. Long hair flung sweat and other bodily fluids through colored stage-lights with twirling abandon. The lead guitarist leapt and bounded about, readied to kick a stack before using it as a launch-pad instead.

The madness onstage was matched only by the madness of a crowd that might’ve brought tears to Uncle Lemmy’s eyes. The poor old sod may not’ve been there in person, dead or alive, but there was no doubting he was there in spirit. The slam-pad mentality of the mosh-pit exceeded the loss of drugged-out brain cells by an untold measure. All around it, the pumping of fists and screaming of fans made sure Neu-Ballistix raged all the harder for them.

All told, a good crowd. Powerful. One that deserved better than the rabble they were forced to contend with. Perhaps that was the problem. In the end; all feeling, no discipline. A different world for a different kind of person. Thus, Neu-Ballistix would be no more remembered than the nameless rabble from the night before, or the night before that and so on.

Lee Felton flipped his leather-jacket’s collar down and slipped out past a bouncer. He thumbed a cigarette into his mouth as he surged through the few people waiting about, coming and going. They were faceless the way any crowd was; confirmed to the senses as humans, but clustered so as to be inaccessible, personally.

Like the bands every night, every weekend; All feeling, no discipline. All discipline, no feeling. No matter what, all of one thing and none of the other, and all nothing because of it.

Then again, beneath scattered streetlights, who wasn’t faceless and unfamiliar?

To Lee, most people were sterile sperm; the assumed potential of greatness, but that could never be attained. It wasn’t their fault they were blanks– duds, but they were. Fact was, it was really the 21st century’s damaged testes that had done it. The same ones that promised a world of flying cars and hover-boards, but in reality, had turned into slum-lord ghetto-living and dehumanization.

Even smoking in public was outlawed, required standing in the cold. Fine for bouncers on-duty, but why for him? Specially when the chick in the corner’s doing rails off a whore’s cock. They can still get their jollies, why not him too?

In the end, it wasn’t about what was cool, or in, it was control. No-one knew it, and no-one could. The artistic community lived on vibes. In a digital world, that meant being blind. It was a trade-off. The vibes were bountiful when harnessed right, but required certain sacrifices be made. It was the same trade every artist made, personally or publicly. More spot-light, more heat.

It just so happened Lee’s industry was especially good at using the light to blind and dazzle, before pillaging and plundering talent, image, and any hope of reputation. And why not? They were damned good at it. Had been for a century now. Never mind how much sleaze the artists had to contend with.

Lee lit his smoke with a cupped hand, fighting Chicago winds blowing in off the lake.As usual, Winter’s Autumnal-guise arrived in time for coeds getting blasted at weekenders. Lee wasn’t sure why he came out anymore; the bands weren’t hitters, the beer was watered downand too expensive, and he’d long ago given up the hunt.

Were he surfing one-nighters, he’d have hits left and right. That was the problem though; in the industry, you went along or you went against. In either case, you chose a side. Those one-hitters were a dime a dozen, and the corporate industrial music-machine thrived on them.

The shows were more habit than anything. That sort one went about once a week to decompress from reality’s attempts at collapse. Some people were weekend warriors, college kids especially. Others were simple party-addicts bingeing on one vice or another, burning away rotted brain cells already consigned as victims of wage-slavery or normal-joery and its weekly, excess-purge.

Lee couldn’t blame people for wanting to burn cells or war away weekends. Young or old, life was passing by and the more people were forced to sit and accept it, the more it hurt to watch. Lee had seen it enough in himself the last few years, he no longer cared to watch either. Instead, he went to the shows, the bars, the open mics, waiting and listening and hoping he’d find a sound; the right mix, the right person, to make another God out of them.

He doubted he would, even that any existed in these lean, silent times. Funny, everyone everywhere was screaming into mics or acoustic wells and no-one was making a sound. Lee’d figured that was the real problem. The difference between music and noise wasn’t the notes themselves, the sounds they made, rather it was the space between, the silences formed of off-noise; the style.

Lee knew those silences better than most, had built a career on them. It was in the toilet nowadays, but stuck out enough to live off royalties.

Lee started for the apartment off Lakeshore Drive. It was one of the higher-end places. In these times and parts of the world, that meant the heat worked when you wanted it to, ‘stead of when it wanted to. The twenty or so minutes between home and the juke-joint meant enough time for the liquor to run its course.

The cold had only started edging in, but not enough it to chill the bone, wind or no.

The elevator lurched with gut-punching familiarity. Lee lit another cigarette; he’d torn the no-smoking sign off the elevator months ago. Only three people other than he and Rhein used it with any regularity. Two were smokers.The other was an old man that couldn’t smell anything from all the blow he’d rammed in his sinuses over the years.

None of them cared if he smoked.

They were all like him; burnt-out fools with ties to the industry and more mental scars than normal humans had a right to. Lee’d decided long ago the apartment building wasn’t really an apartment building. It was a retirement home for old rockers. He’d lucked out and retired earlier was all.

He slunk to his door, thumbed his way past the print-lock and stepped inside. Rhein was slumped over the couch wearing only leather pants. He looked like Billy Idol might’ve had he been naturally platinum blonde and decidedly less-straight. He’d splayed out on the leather couch in front of the flickering fireplace, looking as if waiting to be taken advantage of– in one way or another.

Lee’d get there eventually.

He tossed his coat down and sank to the far side of the couch, between the widest points of Rhein’s splayed feet. He hunched to unlaced his boots and felt Rhein’s foot playfully close to his back.

He heaved a sigh and it stopped.

“Nothing, huh?” Rhein asked, sparkling blue-grays licked by fiery reflections.

Lee didn’t bother. They both knew the industry was dead, along with everyone attached to it. The few left were unaware. They were headless chicken-bodies and headshot-deer; adrenaline-drive from half pulverized-brains that had yet to decipher their rapid and immutable exit.

Fact was, not much could be done about it. The industry was dead; taken over by corporate ass-hats and frothing mouth-pieces. All of them, demanding everyone be the next pop-rock idol or gang-banger wannabe. Didn’t matter which because they were all the same; sluts on their knees sucking for the money shot– or hoping to get some of the splash-back, if nothing else.

Lee laid between Rhein’s legs, head on his navel, only then noticing he’d been throwing back sips of whiskey from a rock-glass. Lee looked up Rhein’s torso as he sipped, the Billy Idol image damned-near complete. He couldn’t forget what drew them together, even if he barely remembered how or when.

Rhein was a God; Lee, the demi-God at his side. They’d rocked the country, torn down stadiums, halls, and homes with walls of sound. One did it live, the other did in the studio. In that way that living fast makes Relativity make sense, they lived and did it all in a decade.

Then, the bubble burst with the touring fan-base. The boredom and rot set in. The silence came with it. They’d done their best not to acknowledge the haunting truth ever since that Rock was dead, the industry with it; its Gods now fables sinking into obscurity to eventually fade forever.

Lee let his head sink back to Rhein’s navel, finally at-peace with the idea. At the very least, if they were dead, the Gods had a good run. Now, they could sleep, secure in what they’d been.

Short Story: Someone Else’s Heaven

She awoke on her bed, certain of where she was and completely unaware of how she’d gotten there. Kris had a bad habit of waking up in familiar places for unfamiliar reasons. More often than not, it was a combo of drugs and The Arcade that did it.

The bar was a retro-retrofit of an old-time saloon. Someone had once attempted cash in on a wild-west craze with it, but far as Kris knew, she’d never lived through one. That the Arcade had been abandoned thirty-odd years or more before its present incarnation.

It wasn’t the best or the worst place in town. That was reserved for Downtown and the ghetto respectively. Though nowadays an argument could be made that everywhere that wasn’t Downtown was a ghetto, it was an argument made only by the people unaware of a real ghetto’s realities. Kris had grown up in that part of the city, and really, it was a different world.

One of the things about being black in Jackstaff; Male or Female, you were certain to interact with the ghetto, no matter how hard you tried not to. If you came from it, you lived it. If you didn’t, your family or friends did. Else-wise, your enemies or rivals did.

Of all the options, that last was the worst. Hood rats, Kris knew, stuck together like a rat-king. They traveled in packs, could devour you in passing swarms. She was just glad she’d managed to dodge them as much as she had.

She let her eyes focus. The groggy blur of perpetual hangover resolved into the water-stained ceiling of her loft. Like the rest of the world, her place was in between worlds; not a slum, (mostly in name only) but not the hangout of the Elite either.

Mostly, it wasn’t a slum because some damned fool got it in their head to paint half the town without actually repairing it. Then, they charged higher-than-normal rent rates for ghetto-slum living. The idea caught on, spread like wildfire.

Now, it was damned near impossible to find a place not molding, mildewed, or otherwise rank. Even if, you’d be nearer uptown than was affordable.

Kris couldn’t complain too much though. She’d lucked out. Even as she stared at the spotted ceiling, she felt a warm body beside her. She was only vaguely aware of it until her periphery resolved again and formed into the smooth, supple outline of a petite body.

The night rushed back like a freight-train. If she’d been standing, it would’ve knocked her down; sitting, it would’ve stolen the wind from her. The body was the newest bartender from the Arcade, Yuki.

Yuki was the kind of Asian-American girl whose parents hailed from their homelands. They never let her forget that. Half-Nipponese, half-Korean, she’d said once she’d “been cursed with the worst of both worlds,” from parents both monumentally judgmental and over-demanding.

Yuki’d played along until she’d turned eighteen, then fled San Diego to wander North, fucking, sucking, smoking and snorting until ending up in Jackstaff older, broke, and looking for work. She’d yet to recognize that was how most people ended up in Jackstaff.

All the same, she’d bar-hopped and couch surfed since her arrival. Months had passed with the only semblance of stability the nightly rush of gaming, drugging, and bar-tending. In a way, Kris felt, they were perfect for each other.

That feeling had gotten the best of her. She couldn’t say for sure how much so yet, but the aching in her legs and the warmth in her groin said it was enough. The distinct feeling of her cotton mouth spawned by moaning rather than drinking and getting high confirmed it. Unbeknownst to Kris, Yuki remembered it all, was too dead asleep to say it.

Didn’t matter in the end: good nights were marked by lost memory; the best by the severity of bodily exhaustion come morning. Judging by Kris’ strained lower-half, this was one for the record books.

She tried to rise from the bed; her legs wobbled, knees buckled. She fell to her ass on the bed with a whompf of old mattress. Yuki groaned half-asleep, mumbling something in Nipponese first, then Korean. She pulled the wool blanket over her head, further blotting the gray leaking in from the frosted windows, then stilled again. A moment later, she was snoring again.

Kris surveyed the room, awaiting her legs’ wake up: nights were cold already, forced the peeling trim to condensate and peel further around the windows. The drafts were enough to make her knees lock-up first thing in the morning. Usually though, that was only if the windows iced over on the coldest nights.

She suspected Yuki as the cause for her lameness this morning. Or part of it. It explained why they’d slept ’til noon; they’d been unconsciously spooning for warmth.

Kris shivered, boyshort panties and t-shirt too little to cover anything worthwhile. Her nipples hardened, forming small circus-tents on her chest. She groaned, rose again, and wobbled like a drunken sailor until she caught her footing. Gait wide, low, she sumo-wrestlered her way to the kitchenette to make coffee, lace it with Irish cream.

The ancient auto-drip protested its continued life with spitting hisses and gurgling moans. Kris ambled across the loft, returned in flannel pants and a spare blanket; as near to fully clothed as she was willing to approach so early in the morning.

Yuki tossed again. Kris poured liqueur in, then coffee, stirred. She swiveled to lean back, letting the warming plate radiate at her back while staring headlong at the bed. Yuki’s outline deformed, re-formed, pulsating beneath the woolen blanket that rose and fell with her breaths.

Kris’ eyes wandered again, up, to the decor tacked to the plaster wall. A black and white photo, enlarged to poster size; two women, spooning from a side angle. Perfect shapes, perfect skin, perfect nudity, and perfect joy; all hinting that level of perfect, pornographic class every half-romantic/half-pervert aspires to and knows doesn’t exist.

Kris stared at it, as she did every morning, assessing whether or not she’d attained that level of perfection. As usual too, she doubted it.

Even if something felt different– she guessed her jaded cynicism was finally taking over– waking up beside Yuki felt the image’s utter antithesis. The girl’s life was so hellish she’d begun running, never stopped. No perfection involved, save perfect despair.

Fact was, Kris knew the pair in the image. They weren’t a couple. They weren’t even gay. They were straight. Straight as every lipstick Lizzie drunk on curiosity then hungover on shame.

So far’s she knew these days, they weren’t even friends. They had been, once, when the photographer took the image. Somewhere between there and here, one screwed the other’s man, and they ended up at each other’s throats.

Still, the image had a resonance. Art was art, regardless of reality’s shortcomings.

She’d zoned out so hard she didn’t even notice Yuki ambling over. “Some for me?”

Something stirred inside Kris. Her eyes fell dully to Yuki.

So much happened in the span of a heart beat, it felt as though time stopped with her outside it, still running. Yuki’s voice; the high softness as petite as the rest of her. An edge of perfectly feigned timidness suffused it, concealed otherwise atom-honed steel. Something in its timbre, its rhythm, opened a flood gate in Kris’ mind.

The night came rushing back.

As if happening again, in doubled-time, Kris saw herself in the Arcade alone, bored. She saw herself getting high in a bathroom, Yuki with her. Nipponese lips pressing hers, shotgunning pot-smoke into her with growing heat of arousal,

Then, Kris remembered the hustling; players at the tables where the oldest console games ran on emus. She faked out a bar-full of players, letting Yuki run the bets’ odds rise until they’d worked the crowd to a sufficient level of belief.

Then, Kris wantonly kicked ass.

She stormed and combo’d her way through ultra-gore M-Ks, Doom M-Ps, and Street-Fighters. Each time, she won killings, killed winnings. She drank and drank, smoked and smoked. Before long, she was making eyes at Yuki; the girl who’d run from hell, somehow wound at its edge as herself someone else’s heaven.

Kris realized it then. That was what she’d felt. Why she’d brought Yuki home. The girl had wandered, drifted. She couldn’t be allowed to anymore or who she’d become would begin to be tainted. Kris felt all her feelings anew. Her stoned revelations hit in double, triple time along the gallop of a metal beat from a long-past era.

Love at first feel, and they both knew it.

They hated it for making them wrong, making them have to take back what they both thought they knew about the world, about love, but loved it too because they loved each other.

Time resumed at-once and she found Yuki before her, coffee steaming in a hand. She shoved the mug onto the sink counter separating the kitchenette and loft, shoved Yuki atop it. She didn’t resist. In mere moments they were back in bed, breath heavy, bodies slicked with sweat.

The collapsed beside one another afterward. Kris lit a mix of hash and grass, still naked on the bed. Liqueur coffee steamed the air, melding into the skunky smoke of the lit spliff. Kris watched Yuki’s small breasts sink with hit, thoroughly enjoyed the sight.

She recollected her bulwark of memory, her feelings. Mostly, she wanted to be sure Yuki’d felt it too. Her tacit admission came with a smile and nod. Then, a deep kiss that ended with blowing smoke into Kris’ mouth.

She took their joint as Yuki slurped up coffee.

“I guess you’re right, ya’ know?” Yuki finally said. “I was running. For a long time. Now I don’t need to.” She laughed paraphrasing Kris, “Running from hell to end up someone else’s heaven.”

Kris was right, too, and neither one minded a bit.

Short Story: Between Worlds

The air percussed with bursts of fury and fire. Screams of the fallen pierced off-beats. Somewhere nearby, a chain gun was spinning up. It chattered persistence like angry hornets eternally dive-bombing an aggressor. Overhead, smoke parted, reveal the flit of chopper blades over a blinking belly light.

Seamus Mann, Captain of the Flying Vipers, whirled a pair of fingers in the air imperceptibly. All the same, they prompted shadows to slough from the darkness. The dim lights flickered, disturbances too fast to ever be focused. They ducked, weaved, snaked between burnt out cars, over-turned steel dumpsters.

Falling casings of the sputtering chain-gun formed a lit fuse in the night. It glinted and gleamed from the far-end of a spray of demon’s-fire. The impacts sparked fuel canisters, lit the foreground with explosions. Fire-light sputtered, finally revealing the Vipers’ bodies fully.

They kept low, carbine rifles and PDWs sweeping small arcs from their places in the diamond formation. In their center, kept low and covered, was a cowering figure. It half-fell, scrambled up, urged on Viper before and after it. It crossed light again, resolving further into the wired terror-fatigue of a peasant refugee.

Mann ordered the chopper down. The VIP fell-in, team after him. Mann and his partner and Lieutenant, John Findeberg, covered the team from either side of the doors. They piled in and ascended with the chopper, disappearing behind a flicker of smoke.

Across the team’s vision, “Mission Complete” appeared.

They emerged from the V-R headsets to the tread-milled floors of the stadium. The overhead lines feeding their electronics went slack. The noise-canceling headphones and aural VR gave way to the cheering crowd, coaxing them to normality after the jarring shift between worlds.

Mann relaxed to see their opponents doing likewise, however more sullen. He eyed the scoreboard, but if there’d been doubts, they weren’t his. He graciously congratulated the team, then planted a sloppy, wet one on Findeberg before the teams shook hands and hustled from the arena.

The cheering victory meshed seamlessly with the introduction of the next match, and after a quick shower, the Vipers made to celebrate and join the festivities. John and Seamus went along, drank and smoked their shares, deliberately catching the rest of the night’s tournament.

In the end, its outcome was less important than studying the games themselves, their players. All the same, Seamus had no doubts they’d make the championship. The team was sloshed now, but only two games remained ’til the championship.

Tomorrow, the Vipers would face London-based Churchill’s Heat. If history held, it would be a tough fight. Ultimately, the Vipers would win. It wasn’t arrogance. Seamus simply understood what made a team work well together. The SAS had done that for him, at least. More importantly though, John understood it. And Cammie and Cherry. And Mack and Jones.

They were all aware of it; communication. In-game and out.

That was what Seamus had brought to the table long, long ago, why he’d been made Captain. Before the Vipers ever went pro. Indeed, before they were the Vipers. To function well as a team in any setting, two things had to be certain; a chain of command and the assurance of no personal interference come game-time.

For the most part, that’s how things were. For Mann, the team, the league even, it was their no drug-policy. Not for fear of an edge but from its clouding the mind worse than any substance ever could. Exceptions existed, of course, but this one’s were so few as to be unworthy of mention until relevant.

2AM, Seamus escorted John’s stumbling-drunk form through the hotel suite door and to the bedroom. He shot down the cloying demands for sloppy sex, too sober anyhow. He insisted John sleep, slipping out in the mean-time to mix himself a scotch-rocks.

The suite door rustled the carpet, preceding heavy, tamping feet entering behind him. Seamus didn’t need to look; goons beside an equally goonish, rotund mafioso. These were the only types rude enough not to knock but smart enough not to kick the door down.

“This’ a private room. What d’ya want?”

An almost charming laugh. “Seamus Mann, Captain of the Flying Vipers, a team set to take the championship this year. A pleasure.”

Seamus downed his drink, poured another. He rounded on the men, confirming his suspicions entirely, and stepped to the counter between them. “You know who I am. I couldn’t give a cunt’s fuck who you are. I’ll say it again, this’a private room, what fuck d’you want?”

The mafioso eyed his goons. “Not going to offer your guest a drink?

“Guests are invited. You’re an intruder,” Seamus corrected.

The nearest goon laughed, “Like ‘e’d be able to do sum’in ’bout it any’ow.”

Seamus kept silent, awaiting the inevitable answer. Finally the Mafioso seemed to recognize his need to oblige.

“Very well,” he began. “You’ll lose your game tomorrow. Or I’ll return. You don’t want that.”

Seamus was profoundly amused. He laughed once, spine stiff, and threw down his scotch. He thumped it on the counter, resigned to the reality the man had faced him with. The man’s utter contempt echoed through the silence.

Seamus poured himself another, pushed past the goons to face the mafioso at arm’s length. “Yeah, aw’right. Be seein’ ya then.” He sipped his drink, never breaking eye contact, and swallowed. Then, with a deadpan, he eyed the door. “Now fuck off, Sally.”

The mafioso’s eye twitched. He nodded to his men, made for the door, hesitated there, “Lose, or I’ll be back.”

The door shut. Seamus smiled to himself.

The next night, he stood in the hotel suite’s kitchenette, waiting with glass in-hand and a bottle before him. It was as much a celebration as a eulogy. The Vipers were headed to the championship against Cambridge’s Castle Wrackers. Churchill’s Heat had put up one hell of a fight over a series of bomb-runs and S&D matches.

It was a well-earned victory, close, but even then Seamus would’ve been satisfied for that battle as an end rather than the upcoming championship. The Wrackers were push-overs. The Heat had the same spark of greatness the Vipers had. He almost felt it a shame to put them down. Then again, they fought well, and without hard feelings, that was more important in the league.

Seamus let John go out partying without him for a bit, kept him safe and occupied while he awaited for the mafioso’s manifesting. He hoped to get through it in time to drink too, celebrate, but the night wasn’t wasted so long as John remained safe.

The mafioso finally manifested across the suite from Seamus only a half-hour later than he’d hoped. The guy was almost-impressed that Seamus faced him so willingly. He smiled, nodded. His goons drew their weapons and fired. Smoke and plaster filled the air over wooden debris.

Seamus was gone.

The furthest goon dropped to a knee. An ethereal shimmer was swallowed by flashing steel. A blade punched through the goon’s throat, spray-painting the air with blood. Another breath. The blade disappeared. The remaining men reeled in terror. The ethereal shape withdrew. The blade flicked, decapitated the second goon. A final, resonant note of air and steel, relieved the mafioso of his upper-skull.

Bodies fell about, leaking blood and bodily fluids as the ethereal form re-solidified. Seamus set the blade aside to sip his scotch. He winked on a mil-grade HUD implant, engaged the comm-dialer, and spoke only his address and room number.

These weren’t the first idiots to have tried. He doubted they’d be the last. The SAS had taught him that, and more. Especially after the ghosting-Augs and gene therapy had ensured he’d never be able to do anything as poorly as a normal human. It was fine, he didn’t mind anyhow. All that gear was just going to waste in him otherwise. All that mattered was John and the team were safe.

He checked the time on his watch, showered. He returned to find plastic-suited people securing body-bags and tending to various fluids. With a scrawled check and a signed waiver, he checked his watch again; they’d been timely. He still had a whole night. That was most important. After all, like their communication, the team’s bond was key to their success.

Shame he couldn’t follow the philosophy himself.

Short story: How typical

Sean O’Leery was a typical middle-school-aged middle-child. Nothing in his appearance nor manners put him out of place in a crowd. All the same, he attracted the ire of his peers as if a quasi-magnetic force drew it toward him from them– what he’d come to refer to as “Jerks.” In fact, if middle-school taught him anything, everyone was a jerk most of the time. The only break was the times he hid away during lunch or after class-work and punching the buttons on his game-pad.

Other times, the taunts of “O’Leery the Queery” were too prevalent to focus on much. Even the few jerks he might’ve called friends on good days, preferred to call him “Queery” rather than Sean. However unable to put it into words, he sensed it was to keep him at arm’s length. Lots of people did that for lots of reasons; his “friends,” random other jerks (people), his parents. For a while he wondered if he smelled bad. Nope, he was just that unremarkable.

Middle-child syndrome meant being too young for independence, but responsibilities; too old to be coddled but free of most childhood oversight. He occupied a curious middle ground in a quasi-bizzaro-land of raging hormones, rabid ignorance, and ineffable urges. In other words; a typical middle-schooler.

And while all things considered, life was going well, something was different.

Like most kids, Sean hated life some days– hated it with the enraged passion of a billion charging wildebeests– but he knew it could be worse. For the most part, he was healthy, clothed, fed, sheltered when needed, maybe even loved (if his parents’ distant words were in earnest.) Moreover, television and internet ads with sickly-looking African kids said there were parts of the world where even that stuff wasn’t guaranteed. So, if he felt things were getting too bad, he tilted his head down, and immerse himself in the mindless repetition of a game.

To say things were going well though, would miss the profound, emotional, nose-dive of modern life amid the teenage years. The roller-coaster of puberty had only just begun for Sean. Soon enough, he’d be screaming his head off through its dips, hoping and praying to any deities that might exist or not, that the restraints held. Such was life. He might’ve known that, but he wasn’t sure enough of anything enough to be sure of it.

That attitude was probably for the best. Especially when in walked Jacob Cartwright and all that came with him.

Jacob was another, scrawny middle-child. Completely unremarkable in the most literal interpretation of the word, he had a face that would blend in any crowd and the shaky mannerisms often accompanying such obscurity. Both boys would come to remember their meeting well:

Just outside the lunchroom’s back-door, lunch-recess; that glorious time of freedom between periods four and five that split the day between, pre-lunch (nap time) and post-lunch, (almost-home nap-time.)

Sean ambled from the door, face down-turned and hands rhythmically button-mashing to a tempo audible only to his ear-bud headphones. The three-headed dragon hydra needed slaying, and he was just the controller warrior to do it.

Until he smacked straight into a group of jerks of the jock-variety– in other words, half the 7th grade football team. His headphones were yanked from his ears with all the scolding pain typical of that action. The running back, or some such nonsense, gave a stiff one-handed shove.

“Watch where you’re going, Queery!”

Sean’s ass hit the ground, his ears burning in and out and his face red over the distant screams of a slain warrior and a triumphant tri-headed dragon. The jerks laughed and hollared, the offender gesturing his group to follow him from the door.

Jacob watched– had watched– from the doorway, blocking it until a line formed behind him. He was fixated on the exchange, headphones and gamepad intact where they were meant to be. He’d watched from the angle of one precisely capable of making the same mistake, but fortunate enough to be stopped short by Sean’s enactment of his own, possible future.

The line shoved him forward and time and the world began to move again. Still, Sean stared up, ass-to-ground, stunned. Jacob stooped beside him, picked up Sean’s handheld, its earbuds dangling like a death-dungeon’s swinging pendulum axe.

He helped Sean up, examining the handheld. The boy allowed it, slow to recover. “Looks alright. No scratches or cracks.” He handed it back, “Why’d they call you that? You ask a lot of questions or something?”

Sean took the game. “Thanks… Wait, huh?”

“They called you “Query,” like a question, right?” He asked, oblivious to his mental misspelling.

Sean’s face was a portrait of confusion. He blinked to make his mind work, but it stayed stuck. Jacob motioned him away from the door as a pair of girls stepped out and almost smacked into them.

A curious magnetism drew Sean along as he took a few, large steps away. “Anyway, I’m Jacob.”

They angled around the outer, rear wall of the lunchroom for a bench there and Sean’s wits finally returned. “Sean O’Leery. And they call me that ’cause it rhymes with my name… and they think I’m queer or something.”

Jake’s eyes bulged, “Oh, that kind of Queery.” Sean nodded. “So are you?”

“Huh?”

“Queer or whatever?”

Sean’s eyes bulged, “What!? No.” He hesitated, then scowled, “I mean, I don’t know. Probably not. People are just jerks.”

Jake shrugged, “Well, sorry. I’m not really in on people’s sayings. I’m new. And I read the dictionary a lot. Guess that’s why I was confused.”

Sean wasn’t sure what to address first, settled on the greatest of the three atrocities. “You read the dictionary!?” Jake nodded smartly. Sean gave him a deranged eye, “Uh… why?”

He shrugged, “It’s fun. There’s always new words to learn! Anyway, query means question. So, maybe next time they make fun of you, try to hear that word instead, it’s not so mean that way.”

“I’ll do my best,” he mumbled. He stiffened up a little, “So, you’re new?”

“Mhmm.”

“Got any friends yet?” He shook his head. “I guess we could be friends then.”

Jake’s eyes lit up, “Okay.”

That was all either of them would come to remember. One conversation drifted into another, then another. It was a typical meeting between two typical kids amid a typical day at a typical school. So much was typical that the word sort of lost its meaning.

Something changed though, and O’Leery the Queery suddenly wasn’t so strange anymore. He was one-half of a crime-fighting duo, sans the crime-fighting. When later it turned out both boys were, in fact, queerier than most, they became two halves of something greater than friendship. Their “tying the knot” was an even more typical affair.

All of that from a simple, mental misspelling; how utterly unremarkable and typical.

Short Story: Nothing Better to Do

Snow plummeted at odd angles, reducing visibility to near-zero. Even if she’d had a car, Elizabeth Arnold would’ve never driven to or from school in such a blizzard. She’d rather take her chances on frost-bite getting through three layers of clothes, rather than risk totaling what would be the only set of wheels she’d have for a decade. So, she was stuck walking home.

Another day, another pile of shit, she’d say. Today that was at least half-true, given how oil darkened and grit covered the snow was. In Bacatta– and most snow-afflicted areas– snow wasn’t white or even gray most times. It was black, or brown, caked with mud, sand, salt, oil, anything the roads picked up between winters. And it was always ugly.

White snow was reserved for lavish places that could as easily afford to import it as choose to live in it. Those sub-human morons could keep their white snow, Elizabeth decided, even if human snow one ice, one part old beef stew without the carrots. All she cared about at the moment though was putting one foot in front of the other, and hoping the effort wasn’t in vain and that she’d get home more or less whole.

For all she knew, the whole city had disappeared beyond the few feet of continuous sidewalk and piled snow that peered in from either side of her hood. Bacatta could be little more than an endless void of white particulates where humanity sound as if it were hiding, but wasn’t. She guessed the answer to that would remain a mystery for some time to come. The forecast for the next few days was, to utterly no-one’s surprise, snow, snow, and more snow. The walk-home white-out was just the start of it. Seventeen years of living in Michigan, Bacatta in particular, had taught her one thing if nothing else; Winter was long and it came early, like the most teasing and disappointing sex partner ever.

Of course it was going to snow. It always did. A lot. So much so the first white-outs closed up the town with a collective “fuck it” that intended to wait out the coming storm. After a few days, and a few feet of snow, the city dug itself out and started up again.

If it weren’t for her foresight, Liz would’ve been forced to trudge home, freezing all the way. Truth was, she expected to get to school only to be turned away. That they’d managed to hold a few classes was as surprising as it was pointless. Half-days were as much snow days as exercises in futility. Especially for high-school students, whom usually weren’t alert until their third or fourth class, all a half day meant was waking up early for no reason or having a free ditch-day.

But Liz had never been one to ditch. She wasn’t sure why. There was no moral obligation compelling her to attend school. The only explanation she’d been able to manifest was “having nothing better to do.”

That apathy was largely prevalent in her life, regardless of venue. Between school, homework, getting older, more cynical, and the trials of recurrent menstruation, too many emotions had bludgeoned her since childhood had ended. So, rather than get angry like some people, she just sort of switched off.

It wasn’t that she didn’t care about people, or even things, just that a once easy-going organism had evolved into one comfortable wherever it found itself. Or, if not comfortable, then indifferent. School was no different. Neither was snow. Even the half-hour walk that should’ve taken ten minutes didn’t really bother her.

She pushed into the house to find it still empty. No surprise; big sister was usually gone and Mom was always working. Most times she had the house to herself. Apart from the day’s excess mental energy, nothing was all that different.

She headed to the basement. It hadn’t use until Liz had moved into it. Since then, she’d entirely taken it over. Apart from laundry and utility rooms, there was nothing anyone had used or needed otherwise. Having an extra bathroom she wasn’t forced to share was nice too, and she’d done her best to decorate the place.

Noon was lunch time. Always. At school, at home, at any other place she could think to go. No matter what she’d eaten for breakfast, too, or what she was doing, as soon as the clock hit noon, her stomach growled and grumbled for sustenance or recompense– usually in the form of fainting. Funny, even her gut seemed to have a do or die attitude despite her otherwise total indifference.

She slapped together a sandwich from provisions she’d squirreled away in a mini-fridge in her room, then sank into a chair in front of her computer. The screen faded on to a web-browser and her open email account. To one side, a message app flashed an alert. Above it read, “Sam Ellery,” in alternating green and white with black text. Below was “Hey Chickie, U round?”

If Liz had to guess, Sam was eating lunch and praying she’d suss out a way to spend the day with her. Liz’s charteristic indifference struck again;she had no strong feelings, one way or the other. Then again, logic begged the question, “what else did she have to do?”

Nothing. Ab-so-lutely nothing.

The next three or four days would be boring as hell unless she rectified the problem now. Sam was probably thinking ahead as much as she was caught in the moment.It didn’t make her any less on target.

Sup?

Liz scarfed down her sandwich, sucked down some soda, and read the next message.

Shit. U?

Same.

Wanna chill?

Liz shrugged to herself. My place or urs?

Urs. Rents r home. Fightin agn. Mind if I stay 2nite?

Another pointless shrug. If u want.

Coo. C u in 10.

With that, at the very least, the next few days had been secured against boredom. Sam always had a heavy bag of grass and at least a handful of ideas to offer to pass time. Liz had plenty of ideas herself. Seeing as no-one ever entered the basement either, incense could cover the smell of even a few bags of lit grass.

Ten minutes passed quicker than Liz expected. Sam entered without knocking. Even had she, Liz would’ve never heard it. It was just easier this way. She shook snow off herself, dropped a heavy backpack just beyond the closed, basement door, and dug out a separate pair of shoes to change from her snowy ones.

Liz watched with something like envy; Sam was always stunning, even in spite of a little pudge around the love-handles. Perhaps it was just her confidence– her small build made the pudge more noticeable but she seemed ever the force of nature. Her larger cups and the petite hourglass they hung on couldn’t hurt, Liz knew.

Liz was the opposite in almost every way; a hair taller than average, lumpy in all the wrong places, flat in most others. If it weren’t for the aloof personality she’d cultivated, she’d have probably been a neurotic mess of insecurities. Weed helped too.

Sam settled onto the small couch beside Liz, pack beside her feet. She broke out a bag of grass and a few cigars and rolling papers, set them on a book atop the coffee table.

“What’chu been up to?”

“Had lunch. Now this,” she said, focused on the TV.

“Wha’s it?”

She shrugged, “Some movie. Started just before you came in. Dunno know what about yet.”

Sam poured weed onto the book, put one half onto another book, and handed it over with the cigars and a knife. “Roll the blunts. I’ve got more weed if you need it. I’ll do the joints.”

The pair worked autonomously, eyes focused intently on the screen ahead. The idiot box had claimed two more victims for their foreseeable future. By the time the pair were done rolling their respective smokeables, they were on the edge of their seats.

The movie, it turned out, was about two young girls, both friendless and alone with great responsibility riding on them. All that usual mumbo-jumbo about strength and companionship and how greatness was a measure of someone’s birthstone or something.

As they sparked their first round of grass, the pair derided the movie. It wasn’t for lack of enjoyment, but rather to mask the awkwardness of the increasingly misplaced sexual tension between the two, female leads. The weed descended and the awkwardness disintegrated into its own, self-derision with giddy glee. Everything was suddenly hilarious. Especially when the two women ended the movie with a cliched, triumphant-victory kiss.

The pair fell about in stitches, their second joint burning down in the ashtray.

Liz laughed through tears, “Jesus, that was the worst kiss I’ve ever seen.”

Sam giggled with screeching breaths, fighting to open her mouth and stick out her tongue, flick it around with exaggerated movements.

Liz gasped for air, “You look… like a cow!”

Sam managed to lock herself into a rhythm of the movements. Between it and the tearful laughter, she found it nearly impossible to stop. It only fueled the already maniacal fires of laughter.

By the end of it, both girls feared for their lives from airless lungs and watery eyes. The laughter settled enough for breath to return as credits faded to commercials began, separating the end of one movie from the start of another.

“I mean, really,” Liz said, laughs still bubbling out here and there. “Who kisses like that?”

Sam’s laughs were lighter, arguably more under control now, “I honestly don’t know.”

“Oh jeeze, what the hell were they thinking?” She forced laughter away with a wide grin.

“I know. Such a lame ass ending.”

“And such a bad kiss.”

Sam chuckled with a roll of her eyes, “Not like you could’a done better.”

“Oh I so could,” Liz balked with a smarmy smile.

“Prove it,” Sam challenged with a raised eyebrow.

What? You want me to kiss you?” She asked, her eyes gigantic.

“Put your money where my mouth is,” Sam giggled. “I bet you’re all wet and sloppy.”

Liz’s mouth hung open, “I dunno’ which is worse, your insult or that you wanna’ kiss me!”

“Oh c’mon.” She hissed playfully, “Wussss”

Their eyes met for a moment: the simple challenge in Sam’s, and the deranged question of sanity in Liz’s. Sam’s raised brow said putting her money where her mouth was– or rather, where Sam’s mouth was– was the only way out of the challenge without a forfeit. Whether from Sam’s confidence that she was, in fact, a terrible kisser, or something else entirely, Liz couldn’t back down. She stiffened her face, finally not indifferent toward something; and that was that she wasn’t about to back down.

She grabbed Sam’s face almost sarcastically, hesitated, then stuck her tongue in with fast movements. The sarcasm suddenly slipped away. Her body flared with heat. It slowed her tongue, Sam’s with it. Almost a full minute passed before the girls parted.

Sam’s eyes nearly closed, her voice soft, “That was really good.”

Liz nearly panted, “Agreed.”

Before either one realized it, Sam was straddling Liz, their hands roving and tongues dancing. For the first time, Liz’s indifference was nowhere to be found. In fact, the only thing she could find was a certain, undeniable lust to continue running the bases.

Likewise, Sam didn’t want her to her stop. One thing was already leading to another, and being teenagers with home plate never far off, she didn’t see a reason for it not to keep leading there. By the end of the night, a lot of things were in limbo but one thing was certain; even if they’d had nothing better to do before, their few snow days were now full, and they’d be anything but boring.

Sam rolled over and kissed Liz’s neck. Then, as if to confirm their shared thoughts, Liz giggled and pulled the blanket over their heads.

Short Story: The Purist’s Sins

They sat, entwined, like wound yarn. The brunette’s hand stroked the ginger-girl’s head. A warm aura emitted from them, infected their bench with its glow and heat. Cold autumn didn’t exist within their bubble of love. Anyone looking on would’ve seen, as if removed from time with them, a world zipping and flickering past like film on fast-forward.

But no-one was looking, or rather, one person was, a man and not a man; a monstrous creature in the deceptive form of a human. The creature watching wasn’t seeing what anyone else would, or should. Instead, of two angelic figures, he saw only demons. Their pale skin, concealed beneath pre-winter clothing, told they feared of exposing it for its devilish origins. He watched, seething while somewhere in him, the most vile philosophies resonated with equally demented notions of so-called “proper” human behavior.

Mother had always been very strict about behavior. Father too. She only got stricter when Father died and was no longer the disciplinarian. She took on the dual role. Between it, the insurance money, and his own inheritance, the Purist had more than enough incentives to listen to Mother and emulate her “rightness.”

The Purist wasn’t his name, of course, but that’s what they’d taken to calling him. His name wasn’t important anymore. He’d taken to the persona fully. No-one knew what either looked like, but he preferred The Purist to his “true” self. He was a righteous being; an idea. A symbol. A paragon.

Mother had always been strict: righteousness was God’s way of separating phonies from pious. The only way to distinguish oneself was to become one or the other in extremity.

He still remembered his first taste of righteousness as the Purist, remembered testifying. He remembered the pride, the joy, the closeness to “God.” He especially remembered the taste of satisfaction. That taste was like chasing a dragon nowadays, but he’d become contented by his inner knowledge. The future was his satisfaction. The eternal reward his overall plan. It would be a long road, but he would reach its end, one purified heathen at a time.

The two women’s lips were meeting again. Passion palpitated between them, rippled through the aura. The Purist felt it like an atom bomb’s shock-waves.

The slight tickle of arousal so denied within in convinced himself of his hatred. Could he have even examined anything sanely, he still wouldn’t have been sure of its origins. Whether from taboo, or long-bred repression, he wasn’t sure. Mother had always been very clear; love was not something shown. Father taught her love was silent. Grandmother agreed. Grandfather taught her to.

From the outside, people called them cold, but as he’d been taught, God saw all. Pride was a sin. Excessive love was as akin to pride as anything. Wrath was preferable. Wrath sought to correct the imbalance. That was his family’s philosophy and he adhered to it.

That, and the idea that a “proper” society was the responsibility of all.

The two women parted from the bench, with an obvious pang of longing. It rippled through the aura that then shattered from their separation. It was his time now. The Purist was ready. He could never make a move when that aura existed. It repelled him like a shield. Literal or not didn’t matter. Not in the end. He got what he wanted once the shield failed…

And they got what they deserved.

The ginger girl was the better target; smaller. Weaker. He liked the thrill of the hunt more than the kill nowadays. The satisfaction, dragon-like as it was, wasn’t enough to justify the fight of larger adversaries. He was getting older. Mother had been gone decades now. His righteous fervor could only last another few years before the sloppiness of age set in.

He’d left a trail across the country of bodies riddled with biblical references and markings; pamphlets about the sin of homosexuality. There was more, but that was just what the media had picked up on. Had been allowed to know. So many other little bits of connecting information about the victims was withheld even he’d had trouble remembering it.

Most creatures of his kind– serial killers, he’d learned through various associations with himself– were the type to track those things. They made self-shrines in their hideaways and homes. Pride. They struck where they’d be most noticed. Greed. Gluttony. They struck in passion, for belonging. Lust. Envy. Most of all, they stopped or were caught from lacking commitment, for laziness. Sloth.

But The Purist struck with a vision. His own wrath was long soothed. The victims knew no better. Just like Ginger. She would get what was coming, like all the others. He’d strangle then carve her. Quietly. That was his way. The markings would be a sign at the gates of heaven and hell that her sins were recognized.

Hers, and all the others. Someone had seen the harsh truth, done their best to save what was left of their so-called immortal souls. Though he doubted such creatures had any.

It was perfect, as if Ginger knew. She led him straight through the park. The brunette was long gone, he could take his time. He let her get distance enough to enjoy the scenery. Chicago was a place where anyone could seem lost but remain a target, especially with such flamboyant hair. It was hard to hide no matter the crowd. Hardest in the lone alley she entered to cut through.

That was his time. He closed the distance as she aimed for it, and struck.

In a flash of speed and strength that could’ve made Mother proud, he was on Ginger. He threw her into an indented bit of building, large enough for a pair of dumpsters. His hands grasped her throat. They clamped down.

Ginger was ready. Had been ready.

A stun gun bit his testicles. Electricity surged up through his groin, loosed his bladder and bowels. He fell back screaming, shaking. Hatred surged through him. Wrath. The small spark he recognized; the hatred for himself he’d never been rid of. It was gone just as fast.

Ginger was near. The brunette too. Stun gun clicking. His body writhed in deserved agony. He spasmed, screaming, too near unconsciousness to know. The world turned black.

Ginger, real name Special Agent Angela Dunne, and the brunette, Skyler Rhein, cuffed the unconscious bastard. The partners in more than law swallowed bile above the so-called Purist. Some purist; covered in shit and piss whose smell tainted their UC-car for weeks. The pair were specifically chosen for their relationship, the dual cause of justice and law.

The FBI’s Anti-Hate-Crime Task Force had been on his trail for months. They’d caught a break in Madison after deducing his next likely target was Chicago. Their hunches were confirmed when he’d hit the city. The first victim there was the last. Enough for agency psychologists to finally find the pattern; gay-rights activists leading otherwise quiet lives.

Most victims were the type to otherwise be seen as perfect human beings. Paragons of the species. Most of all, they looked it. Innocence. That was important. He chose them based mostly on that alone, aware of it or not. They had it all; the looks, background, naivete, their only flaw was the so-called sin of their orientation.

Rhein and Dunne personally shoved the Purist into the UC car while acadre of CPD cars escorted them with lights blaring in triumph. They arrived, then personally shoved his shit-reeking form into a cell to await processing. By then, he was awake.

To add insult to injury, in his last moments, Rhein passionately and deep kissed Dunne. Something inside The Purist– real-name Herman Sanford– shattered. It was, only a dying part of him knew, the effect of that all-powerful repulsive aura. The true revelation and expiration of his only, and real sin; self-hatred.