Short Story: The Treatises

And on that day, the skies thundered and the Empires’ death-machines soared overhead. And on that day, came rest to millions; dead. And on that day, the post-Human dream; bled. And on that day, arose a great evil incarnate from its bed.

Man, but not man. Human, but inhuman.

But too, on that day, was born something greater; a seed tempered in fire. Though lain dormant in the cold despair that followed, it awaited only a spark to ignite.

And so, it did.

She held it as if precious, but sentimentally so. Its covers were worn, but for certain, it was the fabled Treatises on the Empires’ Rise. A collection of so-called “heretical” works outlining the laborious details of the rise and fall of previous civilizations, their way-paving for the Empires’ rise.

The last, true-history book known to Human-kind. Likely, the last printed or distributed before the Empires’ rise, it was beyond myth. Afterward, information was too closely-guarded and censured for any truth to be printed or distributed. Since then, things had only gotten worse.

A lot worse.

Myna knew Humans could adapt to adversity, it was the only reason she– or they– were alive. It was as simple a principle to her as stepping over a fallen, petrified limb blocking one’s path. It was an inevitability. Yet, nothing had prepared her for this. She’d only been on the scavenging run two days now.

Over the century, people’d been working themselves ever outward from the Empire’s main settlements. They trickled out, thronging this way and that like water through weakened stone. Smaller villages and settlements were appearing here and there, but nothing substantial enough to be permanent in the way the Empires seemed to be.

That was important; so close, yet so far.

Treatises was a direct contradiction that the Empires had been formed as believed. History went that the Empires came of lands once in chaos and madness, to aid in bringing them order. After civil wars tore the world apart, there was little more that could be done than try to rein in the madness.

No-one was sure what had really happened anymore, so far as Myna knew. She doubted even the Emperors knew what really happened. What’d it matter anyhow? The damage was done, the past, past. All she or anyone else knew was what lay ahead.

Now, what lay ahead was utterly shrouded in mystery.

The book had already decided that. She wasn’t sure how she’d first heard of it, but she knew from whom. That fact alone caused her to wrap it in a fur pelt she’d been working with after dinners and before sleep. It would keep the book safe from the elements while she decided what to do with it.

She spent the night meditating on what she knew of Treatisesand roasting the day’s large hunt. She’d have to start rationing soon with the land as petrified as it was. The game,disappearing with it, was thin as it was. It would only get worse. Soon, she’d reach the barren lands.

Her mind wandered, inexorably drawn to the book’s mystery: Myna first heard of Treatises as a child. Her mother and uncle were arguing about something.

“It doesn’t exist, Turel. This is an obsession!” Her mother hissed in angry hush.

“Treatises does exist, I have the proof!” Turel argued, thrusting something in a hand at her mother.

Myna remembered little else, save that her mother tore the object from his hand and immediately cast it into the fire-pit. He’d wailed something angrily as the page formed ash, then stormed away.

Myna couldn’t recall the last time she saw her uncle, but she knew it was sometime around then. He went missing not long after, and although Myna’s mother assured her he was fine, had never returned.

Through the years, there were times when her mother would stare blank-faced into the fire, hypnotized by it. It was different than the usual hypnosis of a full meal, or sickness, or fatigue. It was deeper, pained, as if guilt seized her.

Myna was determined not to wile away her days in that same despair.

She broke camp for the outer regions the next morning, managing to procure more game than she should rightfully have found. A day and night thereafter, she returned home with little more than a few, old-world trinkets barely enough for a week’s bread. Next time, she would have to choose a better direction.

Until then, she was preoccupied.

She stood beneath the hanging candelabras forming the poor-man’s chandelier over IzKie’s table. The woman had evidently not expected her back yet, else-wise Myna doubted she’d have found her in such a state. Papers and books were always strewn across every surface– of which there were an inordinate amount in IzKie’s home, but never before had Myna seen her table so piled.

Usually, it was set for tea, dinner, or any of the number of activities the two had planned.

All of it would have been frightening to an average person, so much so-called seditious materials, but IzKie was authorized them. Apart from making her incalculably smart, it also made her a pariah among most villagers. Myna’s association put her on the fence herself. Even leaving her worse-off in negotiations at the bazaar, for fear too much haggling might kill a sale.

When trading for food and survival, that was unacceptable.

Yet Myna’d never have it another way. She admired IzKie too greatly, had learned to read by listening to her quote passages from memory while following along in silence.

But she had not opened Treatises.

It was dangerous. Not knowing what lay within, no matter its power, meant it could not be properly handled… but it was also dangerous to know. If only because it might make her disappear– like Turel.

IzKie offered her tea to soothe her aches after the recent journey. She accepted, but remained distant, speaking little.

IzKie noticed, her voice soft and sweet, “Are you unwell, Myna-bird?”

It took a moment to respond, IzKie’s words contending with a fog, “Hm? No… Yes. I’m… not sure.” IzKie’s walnut-dark eyes brightened in the excess light, turning to warmer woods. Myna could have lost herself in them, wanted to. Instead, she sighed and sipped tea, “I found something I can’t do anything with.”

“On your run, you mean,” IzKie assumed, settling into her listener’s-role; perfect-posture and pointed shoulders relaxed but disciplined, like Empire Guards at-ease.

For a moment, Myna hesitated; she loved IzKie. Probably more than she should. There was something intoxicating about her. As if her intelligence enthralled certain types, Myna’s most of all. Probably, Myna guessed, it was the intelligent ones themselves– or, those capable of it. Like how every had various uses, but only some made for proper bows or arrow-shafts.

But… how much about IzKie did she really know? Was it enough to trust her with this? Could IzKie disappear her? Would she lead someone else to? Or, would she disappear herself? Myna didn’t think she could handle that. She was too attached.

But, IzKie had appeared around the same time Turel disappeared. Was it coincidence or design?

Now IzKie was looking at her, watching her. Expectantly.

Myna reached into her pack. One of IzKie’s brows twitched, ready to rise, but held before it could. Drawing forth the fur-wrapped tome, Myna set it upon the table and began to unwrap the corners. IzKie’s eyes widened, then narrowed shrewdly; the left-one half-squinted as an archer’s mid-aim.

A powder cask lit behind them. They exploded to triple sizes, confirming Myna’s fears: she had procured what she believed. IzKie was up, shutting her windows and drapes, locking her doors and windows. It all happened so fast Myna was still trying to catch up when IzKie whirled and grabbed her shoulders.

“Whom have you told of this? Where did you get it? Who saw you? Does anyone know of this!?”

Myna was stunned, thrown for a loop, wishing to answer but spinning. IzKie’s bony fingers dug into her shoulders. Apart from hurting, it grounded her. She attempted to find her voice, seeing the walnut eyes now almost deep-black in the new darkness.

“I– I…”

“Speak, bird. Speak!”

“I told no-one,” she swore. “I hadn’t even opened the furs until now. I swear it, Iz! I swear it!”

IzKie straightened, slowly releasing her. She was swept away by a mental whim and began pacing the kitchen’s open length, swaying the racks of drying herbs with each passage. A long while of silence passed beneath the rhythmic tamp of IzKie’s feet. Then, on compulsion, Myna sighed desperately.

At that instant, IzKie appeared beside Myna, kneeling, “Myna-bird, you are my angel and Humanity’s redeemer. You know it not, yet, but I love you deeply and what you have found is a treasure for all.

“But I must go. And you must stay.” She began wrapping Treatises with the fur. “Keep it hidden and avail yourself of my home. Or if you desire, return to yours. I only ask that you do as you have done thus far and keep it hidden.”

“Where are–”

“No time, bird,” she said firmly, halting any further conversation. She wrapped herself in a light-cloak and draped a pack across her breast, immediately setting out. “I will return soon.”

She pecked Myna on the cheek as she bustled past and out the door, shutting it with speed. Myna sat, spinning again, this time from the kiss radiating along her cheek and IzKie’s hurried departure. Wherever she’d gone, Myna decided, wasn’t worth knowing. Not yet.

But a very real dread was inching along her spine, decidedly sourced in the book beside her. Already, she wished she’d never found the damned thing…

Short Story: Kudzu

Sebastian Rower slid to one side of the bed, red from exertion. Beside him lie Drake, looking something the Greeks of old. His muscled form reflected low-light across a fresh sheen of sweat and saliva. The pair were slick and panting. The taste of salt lingered on Sebastian’s tongue. His body coursed fresh ecstasy, post-sex heat.

Sebastian thought he’d known love from lust; Drake taught him differently.

He’d come to Sebastian through a sea of bodies. Its current undulated beneath swirling spirals of neon. The Club, Sebastian was a perpetual wallflower there. Most nights he clung to the walls like kudzu, simply watching, people completely unaware of his existence.

Men or women. Straight or gay. Anyone in, around, between. They all sought The Club. Their reasons were varied but similar enough. Sometimes it was drugs. Sometimes booze. Sex or something similar; always a wiling from between the long-nights and docile daylight.

Sebastian watched, never bothering to do much more than nurse a drink each night. He might’ve been content to live out that obscurity forever, little more than a passing thought in the rarest of minds.

But Drake appeared.

He had an undeniable allure. It rolled in as if on waves from beyond a place of light. Even before adding in sexuality or magnetism, it turned crowds like pre-storm gales; ever-graceful but with auras of power, intimidation, awe.

Sebastian swore he saw them, however briefly. They rolled from him in auric waves, barely visible beneath twirling lights. It seemed too, to automatically repel those Drake felt unworthy; in effect, bestowing even the knowledge of his existence was a gift.

Yet of all the vibrant, colorful people there, Drake chose the dull, earthen vine; Sebastian. Otherwise doomed to creep, alone, merely existing. Drake’s auras decided otherwise. Like an old vid of lovers at first-sight.

Drake approached, auras firing and repelling the crowd so his forceful-grace never faltered. Their eyes locked, attached by a magnetism pulling one to the anchored-other. He saw them then.

For the slightest breath, Sebastian thought himself seeing things. He was center of this God’s attentions, feared to believe it, would’ve cast his eyes away to check could he bear to. Something more said he was both seeing things and their center. He, and only he.

Drake’s approach made time exist only for them. Its eventual return found reality muted, distant and hollow from an inexplicable force between them.

Drake introduced himself with a now-familiar, sonic equivalent of silken marble. He leaned in with only the slightest touch to Sebastian’s wrist. The effect a whisper in the muted sound; a distant sea-surf amidst the hot-spring of his touch.

They danced. For hours. An eternity, it felt.

Something powdered met hot blood. The night became a blur of spinning. Ecstasy, laced with exhilaration. The Club faded to the passing background between it and Drake’s place until the flow of time became impossible to track.

Hot, fast-tempo sex dominated after. Between long, slow moments of unbridled bliss seeming to last forever.

Sebastian could take no more. He gave Drake the last, best part of his remaining strength, then fell beside the God with a growing exhaustion. The Auras, until now empowering him, were finally taking their toll. No mortal’s waves, after all.

He let himself cool down, laid his head on the muscle-bound chest beside him.

Drake curled one arm around Sebastian, used the other to light a cigarette, and smoked. Sebastian watched, Drake seeming never to exhale. Sebastian closed his eyes, hypnotized to nether realms between bouts of fluttering eyelids.

He hard only the inhale, the deep chasm between it and the next. Nothing more.

Darkness flared from a cherried-cigarette. Utterly drained, Sebastian was forced to speak. His star-struck despair was the same as any whose euphoric fever-dreams were shattered by a painful reality.

“I guess I should be going now.”

Drake said nothing, merely lit another cigarette. Sebastian moved to sit up. Drake’s arm tightened, stilling him. Sebastian waited, taking the excuse to bask in the God’s glow.

It was no good. There was no pleasure there anymore. No fire. Just two people, alone, naked. At least, one person, however God-like the other. One, utterly drained, as if its parts were decayed from the energy he’d expended.

Drake finished his cigarette, forced a pause to the air. Sebastian took the transition, tried to rise again. Drake’s arm tightened in silence. His strength was immense, firm.

A lump of fear manifested near Sebastian’s brain-stem, forced him to try again, “I should–”

Drake’s arm held firm. Sebastian was caught, held by the threatening vice that was Drake’s mass of muscles, endless strength.

“Really,” Sebastian squirmed.

Drake was silent, smoking. Again, Sebastian attempted to rise. Drake’s arm gave only the slightest twitch. He was still again. The pill exploded along Sebastian’s brain, surged freezing electricity along his spine in icy, electric arcs.

Terror shook his struggling limbs, stilled by a force not his own.He was ready to run. Trying to. It was utterly hopeless. The body that had delighted him was now against him. With only the twitch of a muscle, Sebastian writhed, clawing in cold sweat at the beast beside him.

He begged, pled for release, fearful of the God’s sudden transition. Drake finished his cigarette and finally began to move.

Sebastian held his breath: one, swift motion forced Drake’s lips against his. The creature exhaled. Smoke billowed from it into Sebastian’s lungs. Acrid smoke smothered any hope for air.

His lungs filled. His sinuses.

Still it came.

The weight was too much. His airways bulged, overfilled. They began to tear; a million tiny cuts from a billion points of skin being drawn and quartered by one another. He wished to scream, smothered from the inside out; Drake’s smoke was too powerful, too thorough.

Sebastian’s innards stretched, bled. The smoke infected his blood, filled, swallowed, replaced it. The process repeated endlessly, every inch of him torn by the next and last. Inexorable terror accompanied the stomach-drop of blood and fluid spilling into unrightful places.

Still, Drake exhaled.

Sebastian’s lungs were no more. Utterly annihilated by the force of persistent smoke. Its tearing, shredding, quarter. Until its threads severed at ever level of existence imaginable.

Then, the rest of Sebastian went too. Piece-by-piece. Tear-by-tear.

Sebastian gave a final twitch and dissolved into smoke. It dissipated slowly, taking Sebastian with it forever.

Drake eased himself back and lit another cigarette.

Hard Lessons: Part 3

3.

Thrown for a Loop

Lucas Dale was  early 30’s, built like a party-addict. His gaunt cheeks sank beneath vein-covered eyes caught between violet and black. His day-old clothes reeked. Cheap booze and even cheaper, powdered soaps. Not unlike those stocked in dry-clean laundromats run as fronts for drug rings.

A hint of lime rolled off the air around him, warding off other stenches through the last, benevolent grace of a decrepit water-source. Crystal guessed one of the triad’s fronts along the coast as culprit. The kind of place a middling-triad’s wife ran as condolence for her otherwise pointless existence.

Few places around town fit the bill, but none of them were any qualifier near the word luxurious. In these places, warm water was a luxury; water, blood. Wherever Lucas that cheap washer was probably the first to touch his clothes in a week. Maybe more.

More than anything, Lucas reeked of trouble. It emanated from him, rolled off in auric waves. There was little doubt as to their authenticity or sources. He was clearly the type to burn you just as soon as look at you. That was the last type of person a thief needed around.

But he was Angela’s brother. That alone put Crystal at-odds with her instincts.

Angela was many things. Cold was not one. She tried to be, atimes succeeded, but ultimately her feelings were there, buried as circumstance forced or not. History dictated her ability to compartmentalize would run until the whole damned cabinet collapsed atop her. Whether the damage of that collapse was internal or otherwise, time would only tell.

That final reality gave Crystal pause, metaphorically speaking. Literally, she was zooming through Jackstaff on her S1000RR, attempting puzzle out her feelings. The specially modified 300 hp engine rocketed its ceramic plated carapace along curving, city-roads near 200 km/h. Crystal weaved it in and out of sparse traffic, feeling the ceramic plating float and drag with each swerve.

The armor had made the bike nearly a hundred pounds heavier, requiring an overhaul of the chassis and suspension specialized to the rider only. So long as they bypassed her biometrics, anyone in the world could have driven Crystal’s bike, but no-one could have ridden it.

It was her dragon. She its rider. Both knew the other intimately. They were two halves of a whole.

Crystal leaned across four, empty lanes. The bike floated over, onto the I-5 on-ramp for Arlington, the stretch to the 531 a few miles down-range. Then, the 9 toward 2 via the 204. Meet I-5 again. Done. Time.

Most people made the loop in an hour-ten. 55 minutes if they enjoyed the thrill of speeding.

Crystal had gotten her time to 23 minutes. Her average was 30 even. She still wasn’t sure how.

Presently, she didn’t care. All she wanted was to drive, puzzle out. It was dead-night racing through coastal Washington that taught her to appreciate the things the country’d gotten righ– even if it took a custom German super-bike to see it.

Crystal’s loop was one of those few, natural tracks formed of intersections in the amber-waves of grain and its crossroads. Most times, it was utterly abandoned, but always one of the few circuits where Crystal could relax, sooth herself with speed and gravity, reflex and focus.

She needed that now. Lucas had twisted her guts into knots. Angela’s state had caught her off guard. Perhaps that vulnerability weakened Crystal sympathetically. She didn’t feel weak though, only displaced. Perhaps the speed and ease with it was done was what upset her.

At that, Lucas most certainly did act expertly. There was no denying it. What little she’d heard of the conversation confirmed as much. Classic, emotional manipulation. Simple con. Reverse psychology. Get the mark to do what you tell them not to.

The same con any junked out addict used to pull wool.

Perhaps she was getting ahead of herself though. Part of her animosity was simply from being spurned, usurped as the person closest Angela. One could never compete with family, but Crystal was doubly effected by being replaced for it. By virtue of her own, familial ties– and lack there of, Angela was family. That Crystal might not be was distressing.

Perhaps it was jealously, envy.

Something still felt off though. She down-shifted three gears to make the first turn off I-5 onto the 531. Angry hornets burst forth from the bike as it raced up, into fifth gear, burning flatland toward HW9 a kim ahead. In minutes she’d be heading south, back toward Jackstaff and Angela.

And her brother…

Her HUD flashed an alert as she juked around an autocab. Things were becoming more and more common. Locusts hailing the oncoming wrath of Gods that was really nature retaliating for the shit done to it.

More of the annoyances and things would only get worse.

She weaved back in the darkness, thrust past and into oblivion. She didn’t need to see the automated, cockpit-less car. Auto-cabs were like everything else post-digital; symptoms of a failure to recognize the system’s inherent tendency toward collapse.

Its instability was caused by its attempts to mimick life, success. The automobile suceeded because it was a way of life and transport. It fit an image and a niche. Auto cars would never lay claim to something so powerful.

Especially in large metros, places like Jackstaff that had sprung up all through-out the world, they were in. They fit into the centers of tech and new hotness but fads were over. The fad was a fad itself. The great irony that was the fad’s own fate tainted America’s west coast as if a point of pride.

Embracing automation in rich, hipster-controlled areas? They and their offspring were as honor-bound as all those oil-baron offspring had been to gouge and murder. Angela agreed, often referring to them as Jonas’– pluarlized hipster copy-cats of their former, tech-head fence.

But even he knew no automation replicated the satisfaction of carrying one’s own ass at several hundred Kims an hour from point-A to point-B.

Crystal winced at an errant thought of Jonas’ dead body, slumped over his bloody keyboard. She revved the engine, raced toward the 204, gliding along an interchange onto a short high-way. A passing alert flashed her HUD; State Patrol in the oncoming lane, oblivious to her speed, impotent, or indifferent.

She was glad, didn’t care for tickets or plate-changes after running-off. Angela didn’t like it either; it meant building new identities for the bike plates. It was easier to take a ticket, let it go on the ID in question. It made it look real. Who didn’t have unpaid parking tickets in this fucking town?

Otherwise, there was never anything linking them to reality outside the plates themselves. The bike could be painted. Often was. And there were too many hot chicks in leather on bikes floating around for Crystal to be all that unique anympore.

But building identities cost more than speeding tickets. Crystal’d only run the cops to test the bike’s capabilities. Angela was still pissed. It was unnecessary heat. Crystal wasn’t about to argue, however ironic it was now.

Since then, she’d relied on her HUD to update her on nearby rollers and it was doing just fine.

She returned to I-5 and headed back into Jackstaff, the malingering still within her. By the time she’d reached the hidden alley-entrance to Angela, she’d decided to confront Angela. She wouldn’t fight her. Not yet.

But her feelings would be made clear.

The white-paneled, brightly-lit elevator sank to its matching garage. She zoomed toward the front of the garage, past Angela’s classic and modern cars. She tip-toed the bike back into place. It settled on its kickstand, ticking heat through its armored vent-slats.

She hung her helmet over the throttle. A turn of key and phrase locked it down. Biometrics engaged as she headed for the apartment, found Angela just inside, across the island counter from Lucas. Both had drinks, Lucas’ on his third from the empty bottles nearby. Crystal entered and their eyes went to her.

She deliberately ignored Lucas but nodded to Angela, then passed through for the corridor and her room beyond. Lucas watched her go.

“Roommate?”

“More or less.”

“More?” He slugged back a drink. “You banging?”

Angela rolled her eyes, “She’s straight.”

“So she says.” Angela didn’t laugh. Lucas slugged back another beer, “What’s ‘er problem? Didn’t even introduce herself.”

“S’been a long night. For both of us. She knows who you are. She’s giving us time.”

That was precisely Crystal’s intention. At least, until Lucas drank himself to sleep, which she knew he’d do. In the mean time, she showered redressed, and emerged from the grandiose guest bathroom– hers– immediately met with Arthur’s wood-shingle face.

“I don’ like ‘im.”

Crystal pushed past, “Doesn’t matter. He’s her brother.”

She stepped into her large room, filled with all the knick-knacks and gear considered necessities for work or living. She tossed dirty clothing aside. Arthur lingered in the doorway.

“We’re not allowed to have an opinion,” she added, keying at a high-end laptop on her oak desk.

“Ah, balls. I’ve lived here long enough –“

“To know nothing’s our business ‘til it’s made our business.”

He huffed, she was right. Youth tempered age as equally as it was tempered by it.

She threaded rings through her ears, lip, brows– things that couldn’t be worn during jobs without risking giving facial structure pinpoints. Face-recog and surveillance often extended to meeting places and contacts, exchanging merchandise and payment.

Hair color and style could change, but the less revealed about a facial structure, the less likely ID could be made. That was the entire purpose behind the anti-ID face-paint. The ultra-gray, metal-flaked paint scrambled facial recog-software, causing pinpointing errors, making it impossible to discern features from shadow.

The result was a scrambled mess that disallowed ID.

That thought alone made Crystal cringe; Lucas’ appearance. Arthur’s aged astuteness caught it. The curmudgeon may have been more wrinkled nowadays, but time had only honed his senses.

“You don’t trust ‘im.”

Crystal’s examined the various piercings she’d filled her face and ears with. “I didn’t say that.”

He grunted accusatory assent. “Nah, you didn’.”

She finished with a final, emplaced nose-ring, then faced him. “Arthur, I’m no fool. I can smell trouble a mile off. Especially nowadays. If Lucas isn’t trouble, there’s no nose on my face.”

Arthur’s throaty laugh prompted her to smile.

She continued, “But we can’t get between them. Not now. Not on a hunch. We watch. If he’s as bad as we suspect, he’ll slip up eventually.”

“Aye.”

“In the meantime, start looking into little brother’s history… quietly,” she stressed. “We need to know how he found us.”

Arthur nodded and stepped away, disappearing into his adjoined bed-bathroom down the hall. Crystal left her door cracked only enough to know if anyone were coming or going. The pair of empty rooms at the end of the hall usually reserved for visitors or other guests, as far as Crystal knew, had never been occupied. The beds were brand new, never used, but Arthur faithfully changed their sheets weekly, otherwise maintaining them for posterity, thoroughness.

When Crystal heard Angela lead Lucas past, there was a mild hesitation to the air outside. The slurring joviality of ‘Little Brother’ echoed down the hall as he was led to a room and settled inside it. The brief utterance of false gratitude, then Angela’s steps echoing off hardwood.

Angela hesitated outside, knocked. Crystal beckoned her in. She uncharacteristically lingered in the open door.

“Sorry it was so sudden,” Angela said with supreme vulnerability.

Crystal didn’t like it. No-one was supposed to make Angela like this. So far as she knew, only one subject– one person– ever had. In the time she’d known her, only the recollection of Julia’s death, her partner and lover, had shaken Angela in any considerable way. That way was thing Crystal never hoped to see again, and promised herself to ensure she wouldn’t have to.

Now Lucas had done it.

“You know, if you’d like, you can sleep in my room ‘til he leaves. Alone, I mean.”

Crystal was stunned by the obvious conflict. “Angela, you can talk to me, you know.”

“About what?”

Crystal was blunt, “This is your home. As much as you’ve opened it to me, ultimately, I have no say over what you do.”

“Cryst–“

“This isn’t my business. At all. At least, not until I have to risk my life to save yours.” Angela looked away, ashamed. Crystal pressed her, “All I’m saying is, something feels off. You haven’t seen your brother in twelve years. He suddenly finds you and now he’s staying in your house? Something’s off.

“It’s not like that,” Angela argued weakly.

“Just be careful.” Crystal stepped to her door, “Whatever it is, that’s how I see it. If the time comes, remember who’s been here and who hasn’t.”

Angela nodded distantly. She moved to walk away, but Crystal grabbed her hand, squeezed it. “I’m here for you. Just say the word.”

“Thanks,” she said weakly, more distant than before.

They parted. Angela wandered off, eyes forward hyper-focused mind consumed by something deeper than she knew how to contront. Crystal sat down at her laptop to run a few, last minute things before sleep.

The malingering in her gut returned. With it came a silent hope that Lucas’ stay would end– sooner rather than later.

Short Story: Cheap Rounds

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

No. Today, it was loss.

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

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

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

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

Now she was gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Especially not like this.

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

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

If she’d been given a chance…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She planned to show just how wrong he was.

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

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard Lessons: Part 1

1.

Business is Business.

The lights of the main dining room flicked off in tandem. The low radiance of the remaining sconces bathed the restaurant in the upscale aura that often separated wealthy from even-wealthier by way of the room’s central, blinding strength and shadowy perimeters.

The restaurant told of Triad affiliation in its carefully selected, hand-woven colors meant to eternally bloom in light, never faded no matter the blood spilt over them. In that way, it said this was Triad territory; these shadows Triad-shadows from which they watch, embrace, and if need be, hide a corpse.

The décor complimented the message with a disciplined elegance. Highly polished Tang-dynasty shields were spaced between Middle-Chinese script-borders, sections of frosted glass of beaded dragon-reliefs, lotus flowers, and filigree. Any museum could’ve inundated the owner with offers, but even those just there for soup knew there was no point in asking.

The very thought of such flagrant wealth and power had always made Zhou Xun laugh. Even before he’d murdered Li Guo Hsu, his men, taken charge of the business. Hsu amassed stories were always amusing, from a time of youthful, aristocratic forays.

In his earlier days, one man had offered Five K for the Jian at his side; a paltry sum for the restaurateur even then. More-so given the sword was passed between Man Zi Tong Enforcers for over a century, once belonged to a royal guard of the Qin Dynasty.

Needless to say, it was worth millions if a dollar.

In Li Guo’s hands, as with the Enforcers before him, it had spilled its share of blood. Xun had watched the Jian cut down more than a few traitors and failed attackers himself. None had imparted the satisfaction of its final thrust through Li Guo’s heart by Xun’s hand. He found it a fitting end for the cutthroat, all-business man Li Guo had once been.

He was hardly that then. Hsu had softened, had grown fat on American decadence, the excreted dollars of their highest class. Despite his relative attachments to his former mentor, Xun saw an opportunity and took it. Hsu should have known, prepared.

He didn’t. His instincts were eroded by a time and lifestyle that felt them unnecessary; him, untouchable. Xun proved otherwise.

But that was the way the game was played. Few Man Zi Tong met peaceful ends. Those that did, were extraordinary. Hsu was not one. Presently, his Jian rested in a lighted case behind the register. It sat just high enough to broadcast a message across the entire restaurant; Li Guo was gone, wasn’t coming back.

No-one knew that more than his son Jun, rightful heir to his father’s business and teetering on the brink of war with Xun, his men. The Man Zi Tong was in the usual chaos of regime change, still too near to reeling to have fully settled. The only hope Jun had without his father’s resources was fronting the money to make a statement.

It just so happened a Golden Triangle trafficker liked the idea of Xun’s death, and fronted the cash. After that, all Jun needed was the statement. Jun took the cash knowing he’d pay off the trafficker or die, one way or the other. Business was business, after all.

Currently, his statement crouched at the edge of the restaurant’s roof, eyeing the door below. Crystal Kane and Angela Dale were another student-mentor pair whose bond involved significantly less interpersonal knife-play– at least where their own partnership was concerned.

The door opened below, forcing them into the shadows. Dress shoes and silks the cost of an average salary preceded Chinese tobacco wafting on Jackstaff’s autumn winds. Low Chinese broke at a pair of heels that clicked up and into place beneath them. The soft rustle and click of a fashionable clutch’s latch prompted them to peer at the newly-assembled group.

Crystal’s digital-HUD implant flashed real-time Chinese-English translations.

– won’t shake the hornet’s nest,” one man said.

“Don’t be so sure,” another replied.

The woman allowed one man to light her smoke. “If Jun is to have his revenge, he will have it. She loosed a ball of smoke that plumed up, past her face. “There will be nothing to stop him. We must accept that. What happens afterward is our concern.

The group broke for a pair of high-end sports cars nearby. Their exit alone confirmed their association with the Man Zi Tong, but their words erased any doubts as to their place in the organization. They were near the top, cavorting with would-be kings.

Crystal recalled once fearing these kinds of people. Then, she recalled fearing nothing for a long time. Since then, she had only feared any whom mightthrow her back in the street. That number grew smaller with each day. The Triad offshoot of Sun Yee On expanding throughout Jackstaff the last few months was hardly intimidating. They were tourists in her town, and so long’s she did her job, her game protected her.

Binnacle Sound was the new Puget Sound. Both a thriving port city, and a dead harbor filled (not entirely metaphorically) with corrupt officials. It was more difficult to know whom not to pay off these days.

For an organization like the Man Zi Tong, it was paradise. A new gold rush in a new Santa Fe. The most important thing, as usual, was carving out as much of the resource as possible and gaining power through it.

In Jackstaff, the greatest resource available was shadows. The city was a new port for the Golden Triangle’s drug trade, shipped straight across the Pacific to North America. The rest of the West coast had gotten wise, cut into the profits. To the Triads, it was too much.

It wasn’t a surprise Man Zi Tong had a presence in Jackstaff. No-one expected much of the place after the closure of the city’s main chemical and fishing industries. (The two more linked than the city admitted.) Most people in the once-thriving seaside town struggled to find ends, let alone make them meet. Unemployment was beyond a problem. It was an epidemic.

For those with far more than they could ever need but unwilling to share, coercion and loss were mainstays. Most others had nothing to lose anyhow.

Crystal had felt the latter first-hand most of the last decade. She’d lived on the graces of fools biting off more than they could chew and throwing the rest out. She’d lived on the streets, out of trash-cans, wishing to die but never willing to.

Then, Angela appeared, living high in fast cars, fashion, and offering every dream she might dream. In exchange, Crystal agreed to be her partner. What that entailed, among other things, was waiting for the group to enter their sports cars atop the restaraunt’s roof.

Glossy curves reflected exterior neongrids and filigreed ornamentation in passing; gaudy dècor were its execution not so exquisitely refined. The first car disappeared into the night in a sonorous cry of high-performance cylinders. The other remained in place, forcing Angela to huff frustration.

The clock was ticking. The job needed to be done. The longer they waited, the shorter night became and the less time they’d have if things went sideways. Crystal shared her anxiety, but was calm for the sake of balance.

It was their way; one worried, the other foiled. That duality kept them ready for anything.

Crystal focused on the second car, the man and woman there. Darkness beyond the building was too complete for even her HUD to compensate. The couple were mere silhouettes in darkness where only a glowing, cherried-clove marked their continued presence. Silhouettes began shifting. The cherry was steady at the passenger-window. A rhythmic stir began

It took Crystal a full minute to comprehended the movements, their repetition.

She rolled her eyes at Angela, “Really? Let’s just do this.”

Angela shook her head, the woman’s upper-half bobbing but her hand stock-still, hanging on the window so her cigarette didn’t tip. “Light’s too direct. Move now and they’ll see us.”

Crystal sighed, resolved to silence.

They watched the act, as equally removed from its sexuality as intrigued by its utter apathy. A rigid business-like quality commanded the scene. Crystal guessed neither man nor woman had much romantic feeling.

Gangers were like that, Crystal had learned; no real emotions outside fury. Everything else was a formality; sex, joy, hunger, excretion. It didn’t matter what. So long as there was a need, a requirement, it would be met. No matter how awkward it seemed from the outside.

Crystal couldn’t imagine such creatures being born. It seemed too personal.

In a way, their client was the inverse. It may have been Crystal’s reading alone, but Angela would recognize it at some point too. Hsu had contracted Curie, and thus them, for what a sentimental heist. The money was right for a Triad, but the cause of the job itself was odd. Neither of them knew what to make of it.

Hsuhad admittedpartial sentimentality to Curie, possibly for the sake of camaraderie rather than conveyance of feeling, then offered half upfront to keep that quiet. Angela and Crystal shut up after that. Cautionary acts meant taking care not to make more enemies than healready would.

Angela all but confirmed the subtext later, along with another:Hsu didn’t expect more than he was willing to pay for.

In other words, if caught, giving him up in exchange for their lives was perfectly acceptable. Angela mused this might serve his purpose as well as taking the Jian in the first place, or it wouldn’t matter as they’d be dead. Triads were like that; as likely to send a message as to let you go on good behavior. Their unpredictability was their real threat.

Crystal watched the business-fellatio, knowing all her years of street living had never quite served up a scene so emotionless. Even the eldest, cheapest whores she’d known put some life into it. This was like watching a reanimated corpse try to swallow a hot dog anchored to a car-seat.

It ended as indifferently as it had carried on; with a movement and the distant sound of spit. The cherry flared again and the engine roared. The car pulled away, leaving Angela and Crystal to work, however utterly flabbergasted by what they’d seen.

They double-checked the area, then felined their way beneath the back-door light. Inside would be cameras, security guards, night time dealers running numbers and playing cards in the basement meat-lockers. Their best chance was bypassing the cams, cutting the alarms, and finessing the Jian from the case.

They were inside in moments. Crystal slipped her lock-picks into her belt while her HUD ID’d cameras, superimposed their vision cones across the building. Angela’s HUD did likewise. The room became a mix of faded cones, dotted paths between various blind-spots.

Far ahead, the Jian gleamed in its case, freshly oiled and set upon red velvet and satin like a shining beacon. Obviously Xun had never thought anyone ballsy enough to steal it.

That was one of the problems with such creatures; he thought only of the way he himself would think, act. He was incapable of considering the minds of those unlike him. More than that, Xun likely never considered Toolers couldn’t be touched for stealing from Triads. Especially not when on contract with other Triads.

Then again, Xun wasn’t a Triad. Not really. He thought himself one. In reality, it was Jun Hsu that was. Son of a former Enforcer and allowed to operate as Man Zi Tong by the graces of Hong Kong’s Sun Yee On. Hsu was given a choice of successor. His son was the logical and groomed choice.

Of course, Hong Kong would always back a winner, but Xun couldn’t make a case if he wasn’t given time to earn anything.

But Xun didn’t understand that. He also didn’t understand security wasn’t just a feeling. It was an art. One he was not well-versed in. Li Guo had been. In the way that all powerful men were; people feared violating their security, so they didn’t.

No one feared Xun though. Not like they had Li Guo.

Most of all, Angela and Crystal didn’t fear anything beyond the job. That was the game, how it was played. During jobs, all bets were off. Toolers were the ones going suffering most immediately for those fuck-ups. Before or after, it was the Fixers, Middlers, or Johns.

Mostly, if someone wanted revenge, it was the Johns that got hit. Can’t shoot the messenger, or no-one’s bringing you messages anymore.

They reached the case. Angela set to work. Crystal fought open a security panel on the wall. She clipped a pair of leads to hot and cold wires, linked them to a small tablet. With a few swipes of her fingers the lights flickered, went out. Through-out the building heavy locks slammed shut.

A sudden clamor sent them reeling. Shouts preceded flash-lights flaring beneath automatic rifles and SMGs. Chinese and English were shouted in equal measure, both commanding them to freeze. A dozen different barrels trained and closed in, forcing them nearer one another.

“Intel was off,” Crystal whispered over shouting Chinese.

“Spilt milk.”

The Chinese went silent. A pair of men parted, allowing another through. He sidled up to the register, pistol in-hand.

“Mr. Hsu’s representatives, I presume.”

Xun stepped forward; a Chinese-American more white than most of his men. Late fifties, and dressed in the silks of crooked businessmen, his left hand was framed by a tailored cuff and leveled on Angela. It ended in the fingered trigger and loaded barrel of a chrome .45.

Crystal muttered, “Well?

“Improvise.”

Xun surveyed the suppressed TMPs harnessed on Crystal’s chest, the baby-Deagle at her side, and the gear strung along Angela’s body.

“Going to war?” Xun joked.

His men chuckled. He glanced aside. Angela struck.

A spinning kick forced the .45 through the air, morphed it into a body-throw. Crystal triggered a smoke grenade that instantly filled the room. Gunfire blatantly refused to erupt, Xun’s men too afraid of hitting him as he slammed back onto the Jian’s case, shattering it.

A moment later he was on the floor, Crystal and Angela ghost trains fleeing through smoke and out the back-door. It slammed, latched and locked again. A breath later a motorcycle zoomed up, unmanned. Angela was atop it first. Crystal adjusted the Jian on her back, climbed on behind her.

They took off, rocketing away in a scream of BMW horsepower.

Before the door opened again, they were gone, lost before they could be tracked, and a hundred G’s wealthier.