Hard Lessons Pt. 10

10.

Talk the Talk

Lucas hunched across the island counter, eyes on his own reflection in the black-mirror of coffee. The air was still, quiet. Only the occasional drip of a fridge broke through, however distant. Even then, it was merely an aural nudge to affirm temporal events still flowed.

Angela had no idea where to start. Lucas wouldn’t be saying anything anytime soon though. Hints of desperation and shame tainted the air, taking residence to replace any need for speech. She started as simply as possible, emotions in check for brevity’s sake.

“I gave you money. And a car.”

Her tone shook. It was pointless to scold. Keep it simple. Adult. Lucas could do what he pleased. Her issue lie elsewhere.

“I gave you money, and a car, and you took advantage of my trust. I expected we’d act responsibly because we’re adults. Myself by offering to help. You, by taking it as help.”

That seemed better, Angela thought. Remove anger, needless subject matter, and look at the framework of the act: he’d left with her vehicle, kept it in a bad lot, on a bad side of town, just to burn money getting trashed.

She wouldn’t have begrudged him the night were it not to such an extremity. Taking a load off was one thing. Being soused to the gills all day and night at a shit-hole like the factory was another. If she hadn’t shown up….

“Lucas, We’re both adults.” She put her hands flat on the island. “I know you’re using. I don’t know what, but I don’t care. You need to stop. It’s not helping you.”

This time he eyed to protest.

“Don’t lie, Lucas. Don’t bother trying. I know Emilio Wyatt better than you’d ever imagine. He sells two things and only two things; strong drugs and cheap whores.”

“Ang–“

She hardened, justified now that he was fighting her. “Save it. You’re bingeing. I didn’t grill you when you showed up, so don’t question me now. Don’t argue. Just listen: Stay away from Wyatt.

Each syllable stung harder, visible in the tics and twinges of his smallest facial muscles. Effects of the moment of clarity she’d caught him in. Mostly, from forcing him to sober up overnight.

“Trust me, Lucas. Keep your head down. Wyatt knows who you are now. And where you are.”

Lucas hid it well, but not from Angela. She knew he was running, from what didn’t matter.

“Wyatt’s got it in for me. Doesn’t matter why. What matters is, you’re an avenue to me.”

Lucas winced, catching her subtext, “Angie, why d’you–“

“Save it and listen.” He nodded slowly. “Get clean. Here and now. I can help. Otherwise, you’re on your own. I can’t risk harboring a junkie. My work’s too vulnerable.”

“What work?” He asked, finally.

Angela paused; it had taken him this long to wonder.

Something abraded the heart in her chest. At the moment she wasn’t sure it was hers for its seeming numbness. It was obvious why; all this time and only now had he asked. Merely from selfish curiosity and only spurned by fear of consequences for himself at that.

No doubt Lucas’ inner-workings were priming to appear concerned, when all he wondered was how bad the damage would be when he defied her.

She ignored his question wholesale, “You’re risking my work. Chill out and sober up. Or leave.”

A frothing anger bubbled in Lucas; the victim emerged. “What? How can you–“

She cut him off, knowing his mind, “This isn’t about money, Lucas.”

“Really!?” He spat in disbelief, mock or otherwise she wasnt sure. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen nothing but caviar life. You haven’t once– and what about Alison? Or Mom? Or Dad? You haven’t even asked about them. Now you’re–“

“Our parents are the problem, Lucas,” She said, weakening at mention of Alison. “If either of them cared, they’d have found me. You did. I’m offering my help.”

He trembled with emotion, likely detox too. His obvious sobriety was wearing him down. He looked twice his age. At thirty, that was saying something. His eyes were wet, as if he fighting back tears welled by the mess of his life. Ones he refused to admit the source of.

She stepped around the island, sat next to him, “I can help you, Lucas. Let me.”

His strength suddenly failed him and he collapsed, sobbing. She caught and soothed him, shushing the grief and fear as it coursed through it. However long she held him, she wasn’t sure, but when he’d finally managed to recompose himself he sat upright in silence for a long time.

Finally, Angela broke it.

“I’m going to help you. What’ve you’ve been using?” He said nothing. She winced, knowing what it meant. “How long?”

“Too long.”

“You can’t do this alone, but I’ll get you through it.”

He offered her a grateful smile, then returned his gaze to the floor.

Angela quickly showered and readied herself. She stepped from her room to double-check something on a tablet, made note of Harman’s SD card in it, then stepped around the island in her riding jacket. She thumbed a list, shut and locked the tablet, slid it in a drawer on the far-side of the island.

In twenty minutes, Lucas hadn’t moved an inch. Shame and desperation clung to him in equal measure around still, stagnant air. Lucas was like a living statue. The pain necessary would have cut Angela but what needed to be done, needed to be done now.

“I’ll be gone a half-hour. We’ll start working you off the stuff when I get back.”

Hints of an emotion tugged at his face, never fully manifesting.

He didn’t move. She lingered until he did, then reassured him with a look. She left him alone at island and made for her bike in the garage. In moments she was top-side, zooming off across town. Her HUD flashed an alert, bone-comm implant vibrating invisibly.

“Yeah?” Titus answered.

She zoomed through a stoplight. “Methadone. Naltrexone. Grass. Gabapentin. Alley off fifth. One hour.”

Titus had long ago committed the mental checklist to memory. It was an old favorite. Middlers called it the Junkie’s deep-clean; a street-based backdoor treatment for addicts. Usually, Heroin addicts.

He dialed his cell. Crystal watched him from the cot, his muscled form stiff and strong against his thoughts’ weight. He stood nude before the screens, silhouetted like some statuesque God of ancient time. His body, muscled like an old street-kid living fat and healthy as he liked, made its power known in the slight relief of his features.

He repeated Angela’s order in code before setting the cell down and returning to her.

Crystal laid her head against a hand, watching his half-erection in the glow, “Leaving?”

He stepped over confidently, “Nah. Business. All yours.”

Crystal’s tongue skirted the bottom of her lip. Before he could make his move, she did. Insatiably. Twice turned to thrice. Already he was one up on her. She didn’t mind. It’d been longer than she knew anyhow. He, on the other hand, felt compelled to even the odds.

Crystal wasn’t sure how it’d started, but sensed its origins in the passionate kiss she’d given him. How it had happened was less important than that it did. Crystal’d wanted it, needed it even, and Titus wanted her. It was a sort of silent business deal perfect for its indifference to everything, even itself.

For now, there was no need to go deeper than a thrust.

Night turned to day in a slow procession of sex and gathering exhaustion, until forced them to slow to retain the reserve needed for work. Until then, the feeds would alert them when needed. Placid boredom was reason enough to fuck, but releasing Crystal’s immensely built-up pressure in the meantime was obligation.

By the end, neither was sure how the army-issue cot had survived. Then again, all either one cared about was the pure ecstasy coursing through their loins. Crystal laid beside Titus, only having just caught her breath.

“I needed that.”

He chuckled, “Been a while?” She nodded, more or less. “Doesn’t seem to have mattered.”

She chuckled, “A compliment?”

“The highest,” he replied, putting a joint to his lips and sparking it.

He offered and she took a deep hit, straining through held breath, “Don’t think less of me.”

“Never.” She blew a cloud of smoke at him skeptically. He chuckled, “I’d never have brought you if that were possible. Sexual talents aside, your skill merits respect. I’d never disrespect you like that.”

She smiled, taking another drag, “Sexual talents, huh?”

“Mhmm.”

She snickered, climbing atop him again to lean and savor him with a kiss. Then, with a long breath, she shotgunned smoke into him to blow his mind a fourth time.

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Short Story: Love or Not

Taryn was young, lean, and more or less healthy– if eternally under-the-weather looking.

Strawberry-blonde flax crept from her head. The strands formed great sheets of otherwise-silk whose ends were too frayed to allow proper naming. Her clothing was perpetually clearance-rack, tattered edges, and at least one-two sizes too big in one placed or the other. Nonetheless she was happy.

She loved life. She loved living.

And she loved the smell of opium. Mostly, its flowery hints blooming on her tongue between lung-smothering bellows of robust smoke. Real opium was hard to find nowadays. Even harder when the bi-annual shipments to pharma-corps vacuumed up the poppy harvests like whores on-the-clock. Everyone felt it those times; street dealers, their suppliers, their supplier’s suppliers. Everyone.

Even the large corps like Bonne Nuit and Neuro-Kinetics needing stuff for their own, meager manufacturing for inhouse aug-testers were left with only scraps. No help for the poor bastards with neural-shock from malfunctioning augs during those dry times either. They were as likely to off themselves then as the addicts drying out in gutters.

Users and abusers weren’t the only people hurting during those times of year.

Taryn personally recalled hearing the feelers from Megacorps like Cameron and Byrne for any and every hint of true Opium from the shadows. It was obvious in the rumors of double price for already-astronomical street values.

No user or abuser had that kind of cash. Corps wanted hard stuff. Real stuff. What Uncle Emile and his Bonne Nuit ilk cooked up in synth labs just wasn’t pure enough.

Taryn had taken one, deep whiff and agreed; Opium had started thousand year wars for a reason. Funny to think it could do it again if it tried.

She relaxed like some ancient rebel under dim light, to smoke it now. New. Sweet. Fresh. Sprinkled a gram of grass that those ancient rebels never could have dreamed would exist. She inhaled far deeper than few else could.

Dry times meant an end to the extremely sluggish downers that kept her mind limber. She was too high-strung, anxious otherwise. Always had been, really. To a point, sometimes, of unintentional self-harm.

Only past a certain age had she learned the usefulness of street drugs in treating that. Doctors all insisted her condition was normal adolescent angst.

Until a shadow-dweller took her to his street-doc.

Even as she kicked back in the dingy apartment, she remembered the visit. As if it’d just happened. Burning opium buried a damp mildew that clawed through the darkness. Its filth was held at bay by her leather clothing, but she barely recalled it later.

She was focused at her nostrils. That was how she remembered it. How she wanted to. That first hint of flowering sweetness.

Spot looked the typical shadow-type; half-balls, half-brains and utterly average save his personal history and grotesqueness. He’d gotten his nickname from a massive burn along one half his face. It left him eternally looking like he’d lost a fight to a waffle-iron. Nobody would have laughed about it. He was more a mental image of Harvey Dent than any actor could hope to achieve.

Ironically, that scar was earned as a result of someone else’s two-facedness.

Spot had been married once. Technically still was. He’d even been by a corp-suit. Not an exec, but high-up. He had all the nice things a suit had, too: big penthouse condo. Super-cars in the garage.Drivers and limos, and more money than even the catholic church managed at its height.

Anything he didn’t have, he had access to. Even Opium. Any time of year.

Then, one day, Spot arrived to find his best friend drilling his trophy wife on his kitchen table. The fight that ensued ended with the guy dead and Spot looking freshly-cooked. The guy stupid enough to be drilling the wife did so while she was cooking Spot’s dinner.

Consequently, Spot was stupid enough to lose the upper hand and have his face held to a burner.

Spot’s former-friend didn’t last long after that.

That was the end of it. The eventual repercussions, perfectly in-line with what one expected of corps, swept the murder under the rug and ostracized him from his former-world. Because of his ugliness, they disowned him socially.

He burned through what remained of his accounts and and took to the shadows. He’d been screwing the corps every chance he could get. And Taryn, too. Incidentally, he’d never said what happened to trophy-wife. Taryn didn’t much care anyhow, but knew not to ask.

All the same, Spot was good to her.

Since the day he’d taken her to his weird-ass street-doc, they’d been working together a while. They’d been screwing only a little less. It wasn’t love. Just sex. Neither really believed in love, anyhow.

But both believed in orgasms.

The one nice thing about their partnership, for lack of terminology, was the mutual benefits they afforded one another. Ones other people simply couldn’t provide. Sex wasn’t even one. Anything with genitals could fuck.

Sometimes, even without.

What was most important was their link, one they’d decided was the same between confidants, but stronger. She could look at him, ignore his scars, listen like a human being. No staring. No judgment. He could let his guard down.

And she, too.

Neither were squeamish. Utterly lacking any ability to be physically disgusted– for her, another effect of her conditions. Because of it, he enjoyed hints of normality.

She, on the other hand, enjoyed his presence. The Jaded, corp-life rebellion. The simple, delicious irony in his new roguishness. His gun-for-hire ways perfectly complimenting her invisible thief’s skills.

In a world full of boring, typically average people Spot had connections, stories, motive. He had plans. He was human. He knew big-time players too. From his status and previous employment. More than that he– and her through him– had full access to resources most only dreamed of.

They were a hell of a pair. Brought together by what they’d learned at the Street-doc: Taryn wouldn’t live as long a life. She had, at most, twenty years before her heart gave out.

For anyone under thirty, that seemed unfair.

How could it’ve been missed? How was the street-doc sure? It was, he said, a difficult disease to diagnose, both due to obscurity and being commonly mistaken for arrhythmia. He knew it though, had seen it.

The disease– whatever it was the Doc called it, had a long and irritatingly difficult-to-pronounce name. She never bothered trying to learn it. Spot might’ve known it, but like the trophy-wife thing, just never bothered bringing it up. It served as equally little purpose to either of them.

Taryn left, utterly overwhelmed. Unaffected by everything in life until then, she and Spot returned to the apartment only for the tables to turn completely.

Suddenly,Spot was listening, making her feel human. Then, something altogether new. It manifested something more until the pair found themselves drenched in tears, faces wet and choked for air like small, sobbing children. She, for her lost time; he, for fear of being without her.

Neither recalled much afterward, more an effect of the Opium they’d taken to. They still worked, kept themselves clear-headed thieving and gunning, but all bets were off after punching out.

Most time was spent working, fucking, and getting high. Or, when the Opium was light two or three weeks in purgatorial boredom before intervening normality where new memories were formed in various ways.

Problem was, of course, once the next phase of smoking came about they dissolved again.

Didn’t matter, Taryn felt; she lived for the moment, never guaranteed the next. Besides the drugs kept her from spazzing out more often than not.

She took another hit, heart skipping its arrhythmic beat as if reminding of her dwindling time. Life wasn’t shit, but it wasn’t roses. It was a flowery hint of something wafting on smoky, mildew-damp air; as fitting a metaphor as anything.

He submerged himself in smoke, carrying a brown-bag of groceries in from the door. Simple day-time stuff. Just bare essentials. Neither had a taste for much else.A strange normality from a dysfunctionally average life.

That strange semblance of normality culminated when she found her, upright, naked on the sofa. Her feet flat on the floor. His face pressed her groin; scarred and smooth sides brushed her inner-thighs in a similarly dysfunctional mirage of feeling and rightness.

It was the same sort of duality, she decided, that their lives were filled with. The slow death and fast life. Their coldness fostering peculiar warmth between. Their love that wasn’t love.

But because it was more, something stronger.

All of it was their lives. For good or ill. Through thick and thin. And she never wanted it to end, and thus knew it must. Eventually.

She locked her ankles behind his head. Folded scar-tissue pressed one thigh; warm stubble the other. She thrust against him. She decided then that twenty years or less; twenty years or more, and love or not, life was for living.

Hard Lessons: Part 9

9.

The Brother Problem

It could’ve been worse, in some ways. In others, it was as bad as anything that could’ve happened and didn’t. There wasn’t bloodshed, but Angela felt that would’ve been easier to deal with. Bloodshed was easy; stay alive until its over and hope you’re not on the cleanup crew.

She raced home to change into long-sleeved clothing, drop her gear from the job. She hurried Arthur out the door with her.

“How long’s he been gone?” She asked, Ferrari’s engine firing.

Arthur ducked in, careful of his stiff leg, “Left right after you.”

Her HUD read 19:08.

Lucas had been boozing and burning cash for ten hours. She’d expected as much, but her fury rose from the obvious steam rising off Arthur. Whether directed at Lucas or her, she wasn’t certain, but it prompted a small pang of guilt. That guilt combusted into an explosive rage tempered by the knowledge that it was more deadly when channeled.

Angela raced from the garage to street level, into the abandoned alley.

Arthur grumbled a command, “Find the car.”

“Working on it.”

Her HUD connected to the Ferrari’s relay, piggybacked its packets off various open-air connections, met her system in the apartment below. A small, oscillating circle pulsed in a corner of her vision. GPS maps winked on.

Jackstaff’s various cameras cycled, its regions narrowing to auto-locate her GPS frequencies. She keyed off anything in the garage. Three pips. One further along the coast near dock-warehouses; she needed to remind Crystal to mask her bike’s GPS on jobs.

The other two pips were separated by the city-proper. She cross-referenced them with live-cams nearby, knew instantly where he was, why.

And she was pissed.

“Sonuvabitch.”

Custom run-flat slicks left rubber along asphalt as they burned toward the city. Arthur eyed the car’s onboard GPS, instantly understood. Angela was properly furious now. Himself with her. Of all the places Lucas could be, the Factory was one of the worst.

Beyond it being the sleaziest strip club in all of Jackstaff, which was no small feat, it belonged to a fixer with bad blood. She’d vowed never to do business with him long ago. Worse though, the place was frequented by people with only one of two things (or both) in mind; girls and drugs.

Most often, that was pimps and addicts respectively. Knowing her brother, Angela suspected the latter.

Unofficially The Factory, had gained a colloquial additive as a result of the caliber of girls and patrons frequenting it. “Slut.”

In the end, all it meant was these weren’t the ideological descendants of Dutch “sex-workers” using genetics or surgeons to make a living. They weren’t even poor girls forced into sleaze by circumstance and lack of other, marketable skills. Rather, they were the types that wanted to be used, abused, and pissed on rather than think for themselves.

But it wasn’t just the girl’s. The Factory was famous for that mentality in all it’s inhabitants. It was the sort of place only the worst types ended up. In most of America, they were called Trash; England, Chavs. Aussies had Bogans.

Whatever they were termed wherever they were, they were all the same sect: subhuman scum-rings around the drain-pipe of society. As certain to contain diseases other humans had mysteriously achieved herd immunity against as to kill you with their presence. Usually, by slipping on their slime.

They were exactly the type of people Angela hoped Lucas wasn’t, but Arthur and Crystal suspected he was. The type of person she feared he was.

“How’d you know of a problem?” Angela asked, racing through a light. She drifted around a corner.

Arthur growled for more reasons than he wished. “What else would’a been the case?” She glared. “Gotta’ call from his tail.”

“What!?”

Her fury hit him with all the effect of at a pebble against a brick wall.

“You hired me for security. To protect your home. It’s my job.” She sneered. He ignored it. “Furthermore, you no longer live alone. Until you do, there are others that must be considered. You may take no issue with bringing a stranger–“

My brother!

He corrected them both, “One un-involved in your livelihood. And you cannot begrudge others their choices otherwise.” Her jaw ground, forcing her to wince. “… extends to anyone else you bring in. Crystal’s cleared. Lucas is not.”

She fumed in silence, nostrils flaring. He finished the argument with a last remark. “Anyone that walks through our door is screened and cataloged as risk or not. Relations aside, he’s a risk. You know better than anyone sometimes you need protecting.”

Angela’s grip choked the wheel. Her foot weighted the accelerator. Jackstaff blurred into colorful smears. They bobbed and weaved from her murderous attempts to defy gravity. Car-horns became mired in the guttural screams of a super-performance V8 that hiccuped into turns then mini-gunned back out again.

In moments, Angela found herself pulling to a stop outside The Factory.

Unlike most places frequented by society’s undersides, this had nothing approaching glitz or glamour. Nothing masquerading as it.

Neon glowed dimly from a once-curvaceous, naked broad on the roof. Her lower thigh flickered like an amputee pulling a prosthetic off randomly for a joke… for all eternity. The torn awning buzzed visibly from unsteady voltage. The products of sea-air on ancient wiring.

The one, non-junker in the lot that wasn’t hers was a mid-80s Corvette; paint-peeling, tires bald, and in serious need of a rust enema. Above all, the Factory was robustly doused in the repulsiveness of humanity’s most-vile scum pits; a smell unlike any other but profoundly afflicting.

Fitting, Angela felt.

She sent Arthur home, checked the ‘73 Roadrunner for damage– untouched. A mercy for all involved. Especially those subject to Angela’s rising wrath. She wasn’t sure how, but given the area, it could only be a matter of time before something happened. The sooner she got Lucas out, the better.

She double-checked her Walther, headed for the visible emanations outside the doors.

Impossible as it seemed, The Factory’s interior was worse than its exterior. Grime was layered along industrial-adhesive floors. Their stickiness was held at bay only by the foreign-fluid coating reapplied nightly. Deliberately non-UV lights scattered about seemed to ooze never-ending auras of sludge over them in metaphysical glows.

The patrons were no better, if they could be called that. A few were more or less normal. Barflies that hung anywhere close to home. Though that fact made her wonder about what they called home.

The rest were divided into the aforementioned two groups; pimps and their wannabes auditioning in booths, and addicts nodding off or bouncing about near the pulpit that served as a stage floor; an altar to sleaze and smut with none of the hold-backs that civilized those ideals in the modern era.

The latest number on display was something Angela wouldn’t look twice at. Not from hyper-focus, rather fear. Some part of her animal lust might mix with empathy, make her pity people she’d otherwise let drown as mercy killings.

Her HUD located Lucas through the grime and poor lighting. Then, everyone else. Her presence was known the moment she’d entered. Most didn’t bother, but a few of the twisted shadow-creatures watched. Intensely.

She didn’t hesitate, aimed straight for Lucas at a booth. Its near-edge was hidden from view, its far-side clearly visible. In it was Lucas, soused to the gills. Just drunk or high too, Angela couldn’t care less. She stormed over, instantly fighting the urged to empty her Walther into the near-edge of the table…

And the shit-slicked grease-ball occupying it.

“Ah, the Elder Dale,” an oil-slick bubbled. “And here I thought it was just one surprise I’d receive tonight.”

Angela cocked a half-snarl into a crooked grimace “Should’ve expected this. You’ll latch onto anything with an IQ higher than its bra-size.”

Something in his eyes delighted in disgusting Angela. It was a sickly sort of pleasure that couldn’t help but seem right at home in the hell-hole of The Factory.

“You’d certainly know all about that, wouldn’t you? Latching on to large breasts?”

She did her best not to roll her eyes; even clever, he was a moron. “Lucas, let’s go.”

“No, no. Stay,” Wyatt insisted. “Sit. Catch up.”

Angela remained still, ready to strike.

The eyes of every shadow holding burned her skin atop the cancerous lights. Grease congealed into thin air in her lungs, formed of the melange of drugs, blood-lust, and impotent sex on the air. As if a bonding compound awaiting activation at collective mental will.

She ignored it all, looking directly at Lucas. To his inebriated mind, the mix of lighting and intoxicants sharpening her visage to a serpent’s. As if some fierce, mythical creature had come for him, ready to lunge swallow him whole, if need be. Either way, he was going with it.

He didn’t so much hear her instructions as sense them. As a bottom-feeder senses a disturbance along the seafloor. There was no room for refusal to follow, because following was survival, reaction. It was this or something so awful it was best never known, so get on with it and do the thing.

Before Lucas knew what was happening, she’d slapped a handful of cash on the table and was dragging him out. He let her, confused by the sudden shifting scenery. The cool air of the night sobered him enough to keep him moving under his own power.

Angela said nothing the whole ride home. For that, Lucas was glad, if only because it put off the inevitable lecture. Beyond that, Angela knew there was no point talking now; Lucas was too fucked up.

When she finally did say something, it was after an obvious hesitation in the kitchen. Many long, quiet, and cold minutes later.

“We aren’t done with this.”

She disappeared into her room, leaving Lucas to fend for himself.

Across town, Crystal was discussing the matter with Arthur via her comm-implant. She’d called requesting an update on security before going on watch. Arthur’s opinion remained unchanged. He relayed everything that had occurred, positing it was just the beginning.

Before long, Crystal was once more present, sitting beside Titus on the cot, thinking.

Lucas was an issue. A threat. He was a risk to everything all of them had built and achieved. Everyone knew it. Everyone had said so. They’d all been careful, respectful. Angela still wasn’t listening. Or at least, she wasn’t reacting.

Ultimately, the risk was still present.

Crystal sighed frustration. Titus saw her thoughts, “Don’t worry about the workings. All you need’s to be ready to help if the heat’s on.”

“Think it’ll get that bad?”

He cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable with his own thoughts, “All I’ll say’s from here, it looks like he’s bringing heat. Little by little, sure, but heat. If that’s true, it might only get worse.”

“You mean Wyatt’s just the beginning then. Who is he? Not another Caruso, right?”

“Nah,” Titus soothed. “But there’s blood.”

“Enough?”

He shrugged. “Angela’s smarter than jumping lines between Tooler and Fixer.” He shook his head, uncertain. “Problem is, if a fight’s gonna happen, has to be between fixers. Even Curie won’t vouch for Angela if she starts line-jumping.”

“I know the game,” Crystal reminded. “Play by the rules or end up like Caruso, or Saito, or anyone else outside.”

He nodded astutely. “Bottom line, Lucas is making Angela vulnerable. Someone might take advantage of that. Best hope’s to fix the problem before there’s a chance.”

“This isn’t the first vulnerability Angela’s let slip,” Crystal grumbled, feeling more like Arthur by the moment.

“Don’t be like that,” Titus casually warned. “She’s on the level. Always. Vulnerabilities are only a problem if you don’t guard ‘em right.”

Crystal’s brow furrowed for explanation.

“Put it this way; you don’t solo well. You’re best on team jobs. Nothing wrong with it, its just who and how you are. It’s why I offered this job. Thing is, if you’re aware of a weakness, you can be aware of it.

“Take a sentimental person like Angela, wearing emotions on the sleeve sometimes. It’s not a bad thing. Case in point, you. Sometimes though, certain people aren’t aware of it, so they end up showing that sentimentality to the wrong people by mistake. People that’ll exploit it.”

“You think Wyatt’ll find some way to insinuate himself between she and Lucas to get to her?”

“Or send someone else to,” he said. “I would.”

Crystal stared off, silent in thought. Something occurred to her. “And me?” She asked almost on impulse. “What’re my vulnerabilities?”

He took a long, deep moment to think about it, then eyed her carefully, “Thinking you’ve got something to prove and carrying it like a chip on your shoulder. Problem is, you might go outta’ your range of skills to do it. That’s when you’ll hit trouble.”

Crystal followed his meaning, “Like pulling a solo job when I’m not ready?”

He nodded, smiled. “Exactly.”

She caught his eye for a long silent moment. Then kept it over a chuckle. “You think I believe that?” His brow rose. “Of all the people you know; all the middlers, fixers, toolers, you think I’m supposed to believe I’m only here ‘cause I’m good in a team?”

He laughed, caught red-handed. “Guess not.”

She grinned smugly. “And your vulnerability’s thinking you’re smoother than you are.” She leaned over, kissed him. She drew back, “And underestimating me.”

Hard Lessons: Pt 8

8.

All Work and No Play

Angela joined the madness of upper-class mallers’ sport and luxury sedans. A pair hid Angela’s black, Ferrari California GT behind their imitations of wealth and power. She preferred the juxtaposition; the Human inability to grasp irony meant none would be any the wiser either.

She preferred it that way. For a thief, hiding in plain-sight meant you were good– and safe.

Usually.

Presently, she awaited her mark’s armored SUV. Curie’s contact had finalized the details; his afternoon and evening this side of the week was a usual affair. Every Friday night he had her, Deangelo Harman took his young daughter shopping. It was partly to fulfill the custody arrangement with his ex-wife; partly just to avoid his daughter’s vapid ego.

Harman’s dossier reeked of money. The kind from an intellect that didn’t extend to human pursuits. No doubt he’d been the desperate loner that headed A/V and chess clubs, ran them like mafia families and Arthurian round-tables.

Angela couldn’t really blame the guy. Intellectual money usually made one stupid all elsewhere. Mostly, because it was impossible to escape the isolation of intelligence. That strange dichotomy of life– the cosmic balance that needs-must-always be maintained, decided it before Deangelo Harman every entered the equation.

In essence, he was smart, wealthy, and a complete fool. Especially with women. It was forgivable. Especially since it would make Angela’s job infinitely easier.

She checked herself a final time; reviewing the play.

Harman’s firm had contracted with Arc Systems, the largest software manufacture on Earth The writ demanded NDA-tight upgrades for network-controlled drones. Classified beyond even governments. It was private and profitable.

Though hardly true AI, Harman’s firm was to use its learning principles, applied to swarm theory, to design and code networks of drones for patrol and delivery flights across Jackstaff. Having already made his name design security software as a teen, Harman was contracted as talent. His firm’s inclusion was more incidental than anything.

Nonetheless, if successful, the project would launch its next phase, expanding to other cities and areas near Arc’s various HQs and areas of control. Evidently, Harman’s software would make that happen sooner or later. Someone would prefer it didn’t.

In theory, a simple job; lift an SD card from the mark.

But Harman rarely left home; had a closed, barely existent social life; nd other than these occasional trips with Sadiee, was unopen to the bump and grab necessary to pick-pocket him once, let alone twice as needed by the job’s secrecy.

A home job was equally unlikely. She’d seen the prints. His house was a fortress; physical and digital security mining and moating it with various levels of layers and pit-falls. Enough to put to shame even some of the more paranoid-thieves Angela knew.

In fact, she’d knocked off state-of-the-art systems with less tech.

To say nothing of the security escorts one expected of the wealthy and lonesome.

Raiding Harman’s fortress was a contingency, but for now, she’d lean on her feminine wiles. Hopefully passing for straight enough to get the job done. It’d been a while since she’d run the approach, but knew it was solid. Given the payout, it was also more than worth the attempt. If she managed it, the effort would pay off.

If not, improvise as always.

The armored SUV swung wide a few spaces from the Ferrari. To any passersby, they were just two more of the multitudes feeding consumerism. Modern super-malls were the sort of place Titans and kids went to melt plastic. Usually, enough to feed starving third-world nations.

Angela had done it herself enough times to know it well.

Security left first. Plain-clothes and blending well enough that Angela was impressed. She’d never have expected them to pull off such convincing cover. She saw right through it, but few others could. Her HUD auto-tracked them with opaque pips.

Harman slipped from the SUV. Sadiee took his hand and climbed down.

No more than thirteen, Sadiee already walked with the refined stiff-neck one unwilling to deign look at the withered masses she trod upon. Something primal in Angela flared. The girl was a brat. Spoiled rotten. She’d never work a day in her life. Never known the value of sweat on her brow.

She was new-age, prime meat; the next generation of ignorance that ensured thieving would continue to be lucrative well through the coming millennia.

More than that, Harman seemed proud of it; a moron in love with his own daughter’s domineering personality. Angela sensed she walked all over him. Probably, just as his ex-wife did.

And knew then exactly how to play it then.

Harman’s cronies were already inside as he escorted his miniature princess forward. Her walk said one thing, “I am here to spend money; his.

It never ceased to amaze Angela how many young women and men wore that pose. Adults donning it were even more bewildering. Mommy and Daddy-money kids were an epidemic in Jackstaff and other such cities. Then again, they had been for generations, that’s what made her work so lucrative.

People with money to burn required only the illusion of security; alarm systems, door locks, pass-codes and the like. Things to keep so-called refuse out. That was all that necessary to let them sleep at night, no matter how easy they were to bypass for someone skilled and trying to.

But People like Harman, whom needed security and built themselves fortresses and surrounded themselves with armed posse, knew true security. Not just disincentives and deterrents. Rather, the protection of valuables whilst letting moving about freely otherwise.

Thing was, the posse and fortress lulled Harman-types into the same complacency as all others.

In effect, it wasn’t just illusion that let them rest soundly, but it equally blinded them to true vulnerabilities. The kind Angela could exploit without lifting a finger.

She checked herself in the rear-view, straightened her brunette wig. She double-checked her tattoos, made sure none them shone through the bimbo-librarian-turned-huntress fashion appearance so common to wealthy prowlers.

She slipped from the car, black-leather heels like a dominatrix, if shorter. The door came in confident, measured steps. The kind a woman in such heels would use; disciplined, frightening, inviting. Above them, her slit dress wavered, revealing just enough of her shapely legs to confirm she was stunning.

Angela hated it. As cats hate hunting in floodlight. Part of her was panicking, searching for darkness to slink away into. The rest was calm, professional.

The .380 PPK/S strapped to her inner thigh helped. She’d half considered leaving it, but decided it would keep her from allowing anyone close enough. She’d breach Harman’s home-fortress before stooping that low.

She sauntered into the mall, settling into her role like an undercover agent for some acronym agency, but infinitely more experienced and nuanced. She owned every moment. Every step. Prepared to buy and sell it, eschewing market values as convenience charges.

She was the wealthy mogul looking for someone to make her as much money as eye-candy.

It wasn’t difficult to find him. She made a point of shopping first; indulging the cover, blending to absorb the mentality of the endless, excessive consumerism she’d decided a rich woman needed. Nothing she bought was useful. None of it her style. Rather, the Mogul’s.

Expensive perfumes. Jewels. High-fashion shoes. All of it demanded by the ego assertive woman she was playing. She’d keep it all too, in case it was needed for a future job or something otherwise. It wasn’t hard to make her move once she tracked him down again.

In the meandering way of a shopper, she passed from place to place before entering the department store she knew she’d find him in. Her eye flitted to capture the place as the security pips reappeared, scattering themselves across her HUD once more.

Clustered about the “young women’s” were Harman’s escorts. Hidden in plain-clothes and all appropriate, but distinctly male, and standout. Especially to the Mogul, the perceptive predator. Between she and her Mark, a whole store and a daughter with plastic to burn.

Angela took her time. Too obvious to go straight there. Besides, that required a different mindset. One open to failure. She wasn’t doing this again.

She perused high-end jewelry. Shoes. Slowly but surely weaving over. That cat was at the mouth of a meadowed plateau, Harman the prey at its edge.

She planned her move, Harman’s men pipped for reference. She needed to avoid them. Expertly. Not so much it was obvious. Not so little to get lose the edge. She had to think of them as the Mogul would; curious men hanging around, not threats to be avoided. Only once Harman revealed himself could she think of them as anything resembling security.

If her approach was off, the wind would shift without her.

Angela prepared, taking time to evaluate the air. The place was off. Not professionally, but socially. It put Harman and his ilk slightly out of place. Her moreso.

But nothing else existed save she, her mark, and their environment.

The last of the three stirred her gut. A department store like any other, but designer prices on brand-name labels. Old money didn’t work that way. Their every item was tailored. Locally or richly-imported through other old money, their family.

This was exactly the kind of place a Noveau Riche type like Harman would shop, because it was built for him. So the Old money could distinguish the New from rest but without being forced to share their traditions and ways.

In the end, they were two different animals. Harman the latter.

Like every new money tech-geek, Harman knew money like a fangirl knew their favorite pop-star. He could emulate it, romanticize it, lust ravenously for it, but ultimately it wasn’t him or his world. Not at his present social-level, anyhow.

Worse, he’d grown up middle class, left it behind in his late teens to found Harman Technologies. He knew the worth of sweat. After contracting with Arc-Systems, it was rumored HT was considering a merger with Med-Tek giant Cameron Mobility. The idea was to become part of its new software-wing; a role once filled by Arc alone but now demanding further utilization.

Initially, Harman Technologies had created network security software for local banks and other, high-profit establishments. After contracting through connections in banking and finance, Harman found himself in right place after right time, and increasingly filthy rich.

Now, he and his company mostly wrote upgrade software, patching vulnerabilities in the code of billion dollar bionic-prosthetics. AKA Augs. He sat beside literal Titans at the economic dining table. Not least of which, the Womack brothers; peers and personal friends of Harman whom were swiftly overtaking even Jobs’ wildest wet-dreams.

However much the black-markets modded– and thus finished them– it was these groups that had initially created the HUD implants being adopted by shadow-dwellers like Angela. The black market latched onto the idea, and before corporations or governments could wade through their own bloated bureaucracy, they were was already supplying it to the masses– for a nominal fee.

Fact was, all it took to make an implant was the right software in the right interface. Both of which had long since existed but required sophisticated implementation. After that was stream-lined there would be no stopping it.

In the case of Jonas, their former fence, it was a type of modified optimetrical device for needled eye treatments. Curious device, dangerous to the unskilled, but nothing prohibited. It simply wasn’t available to the general public due to cost.

But a legit-fence like Jonas could afford it on credit. More than that, any opportunist could make bank offering under-the-table services with it for cash cheaper than any “official” fee for a general waiver of consent– unspokenly agreed to before any meeting occured.

All they’d ever needed to get there was the chances to experiment; figure out it was possible.

They did, too. While the Womacks and Harmans of the world were making themselves new-age royalty with stock-profits from the aforementioned prototypes, people like Jonas, Titus, Crystal and Angela, were making the tech viable.

Yet another reason Jonas’ death was a loss, even if half the time she’d threatened it herself.

The thought refocused her. She understood Harman better now, their environment. Her cover shifted imperceptibly. She remained the old money bombshell, but it was now also a facade. Beneath it was the “real” girl; a confused new-money kid hiding in what she thought she was meant to emulate.

The predatory wanting to be prey but unable to admit it.

With that minor adjustment came with another. Then again. Minute revisions in muscular tension. Until her posture and walk were right. The flitting, most minor hint of vulnerability to the eye. A predator posturing, that really survived on luck, desperation, even pity.

Exactly like Harman.

Angela made her move, careful not to be caught watching him pocket his phone. She let her eyes be pulled toward his tones, used the Mogul-Pretender’s quick appraisal of form to see him pocket his phone. Left-pocket. Conversing with Sadiee. Eyes up. Linger. Away.

Smooth. Natural. No-one watching would’ve ever been the wiser. Even if she’d been caught.

Angela shifted, interested now. She let herself be pulled about by the personality’s quirks. They’d seen each other now, it was obvious. They liked what they’d seen, too. These two creatures, now stealing glances, needed closer looks.

Angela agreed.

She meandered toward the young women’s changing room, the restrooms near it. The pips disappeared temporarily. She looked herself over in the mirror, spent a moment appearing to freshen herself.

She was doing three things simultaneously; building cover, reinforcing it, and otherwise working a HUD-hack on the store’s wifi.

She was here, now, for a niece’s gift. Common ground. Her persona would need it to make her move. The makeup reinforced it. The more aged a young person looked, the more they felt it. For a woman on the hunt, that meant covering it up.

The final track was actually easiest, almost seamless nowadays. Her eyes flitted back and forth to command her HUD with muscle memory, peripheral locked on the broad strokes of a makeup brush. Her bypass didn’t even need to crack the unsecured network. Her HUD auto-located the security nodes, masked its identity as authorized, and accessed the linked Surv-cams nearest her. One-by-one they appeared as thumbnails, opaque when not in focus.

She minimized the least useful, reacquired Harman. His pip returned in her periphery, tracked him through the walls.

She waited, timing her moves. Harman was getting bored, anxious. He’d watched her go in, wanted his closer look. That was good. The male mind couldn’t comprehend the female one in such situations. That was a fundamental difference between the sexes.

She watched, awaiting the intended effect. All Harman needed was the excuse of time. He’d been bored with his daughter’s plastic-melting at the outset. This was a change of pace, if nothing else. It was exactly what she wanted.

Problem was, she had precisely one chance to get the phone out of his pocket, and one more put to put it back. She’d have to maneuver it, but so long as she got through the first, she could get through the second.

Harman bobbed with boredom on the feeds. He said something she couldn’t make out, face too far to read his lips. She knew it all the same; this was it. She exited the stall, slipped to the edge of the hall, still eyeing the cams.

Angela had never had so willing a mark.

She tasted Harman’s desperation, almost pitied him. He clearly had even less pull with women than she’d anticipated. It happened sometimes; like intelligence, money could insulate or isolate. More one than the other if those effected people had few social skills to begin with.

Harman’s social-stuntedness was obvious from the start.

Angela slipped out, catching his eye at the precise moment she needed. She could only imagine it from his perspective. Slow-motion. Eyes meeting, locking on. Brushing to feel the animal spark, caught in lust. Completely obliviousness to the moment.

All telltale signs of the hopeless romantic. The fool. The creature oblivious to the control his own glans were exerting. The animal lust was obvious in the air as she brushed and felt him stiffen; the utter, ingrained restraint that kept him from pouncing as nature dictated.

She smiled, drawing his eye to hide her sleight of hand and making for the young-women’s section. She could’ve signaled she liked what she saw, but she needed him thinking too quick for rationality. She wanted the glans to work against him, keep him from checking his pockets.

He bit it; hook, line, and sinker, disappearing into the men’s room with it.

Angela kept her cool, busied by clothing and half-heartedly fussing to stall. Meanwhile, the other hand pried it apart, removed the card, and reassembled it. She bided her time thereafter, taking in the posse, the girl. Letting them swarm Sadiee while utterly ignoring her.

More and more, they appeared there just for the girl. Made sense, in its way. Nobody would look twice at Harman alone. He was just another hipster living beyond his means. No-one knew him as the billionaire in plain-sight. The girl was different. She added a new element to the equation. It required compensation.

Angela played her part, phone palmed and waiting. Harman re-emerged. Rushed attempts at looking suave, that such men found compulsory, confirmed her brush had the intended effect. He was Jack Rabbit on date-night.

His best, nonchalant attempt at a return pass did her work for her. He took the long way ‘round back to Sadiee and her guardsmen, faintly brushing her back as he passed. Between the adrenaline and his hard-on, he could never have noticed the two fingers casually dropping the phone back into his pocket.

He returned to his daughter’s side, no doubt hoping to discern the performance’s next steps. He was turned but moments, speaking to Sadiee. When he rounded again, she was gone. No-one else had even noticed her. It might never have happened.

But it did.

Angela was already slipping into the Ferrari. She yanked her wig and glasses off, slipped the card out again, and slotted it in her own phone. Encrypted files displayed on the screen with the request of a password. She didn’t need to know anymore than the file-extension; the “.nppx” told her everything. She had what she needed.

She started the car, made for home, the night’s darkness rising with her. The Ferrari’s hands-free calling system pinged her HUD with an image of Arthur. She answered with a thought.

“Headed home. What d’you need?”

“There’s a problem.”

“With?”

“Your brother.”

Short Story: Earth and Food

A new golden age had begun. One of chrome and carbon fiber; bits and bytes; 1s and 0s. It was to be the manifestation of every digital fantasy. Each one, somehow in someway, realized. The first age of living as fully integrated, digital children. Deeper than that, it felt a promise to a species of their greatness to come.

At least, that’s how it started.

What future historians would find, looking back, was its part in the catalyst of global revolution. Good or ill only came into the collective consciousness after that. Even then, its emergence was doomed to be by force– even after Humanity collectively realized the depravity of allowing it to get that far.

Until then though, those most most effected would remain a silent majority.

Enter Mikami Manufacturing, lead designers and manufacturers of agricultural equipment. The company, a multi-billion dollar profit-generator, had been stockpiling money since its inception 40 years earlier by Hideo Mikami; former Nagasaki resident who’d been away on business during the fateful bombings.

Mikami, having lost his wife and two children in the destruction, wandered in solitude until landing in the US.

Alone, and forced to embrace the beast that formed him, he looked to his homeland. There he saw a revolution invisible from within Japan’s own culture and borders. One borne of the sweat, blood, and redemption of a suicidally honor-bound society now denied their Seppuku.

Because it had become the easy way out.

Mikami quickly built a small fortune off the back’s of industry demigods and his own, unbroken homeland connections, by building capital doing hard things. Mining. Building. Cropping. He collected capital, forming Mikami Manufacturing under the ideal “that to feed a world, one must ensure the ability to do so first.”

Mikami the man, saw this as his own penance to his family, his people; his own redemption impossible without it. Like his countrymen, he’d allowed not only his own people’s, but his own family’s death and disgrace through his inaction and self-absorption.

In a world of Shinto and Eastern philosophy, such as that which bred Hideo Mikami, there was no room for such disgrace. It was untenable. Were he allowed his Seppuku, his culture would have cared for his memory afterward.

But the war had shown dying for one’s cause was equally corruptible; as all else, and thus because of its power and cost, required the utmost meditation before use. The bloodbath of World War II had taken enough husbands and sons, especially through such senselessness.

The Japanese honor, stained as it was by its own missteps, needed to pay its own penance. It was the last remaining culture of a world that refused to evolve. It’s last ally, Nazi Germany, had utterly collapsed. The US was still too new, too powerful a wild-card to determine much else. Russia had long been in its cyclical loop of revolt, collapse, rebuild, repeat. Even China, sleeping giant it was, was largely irrelevant.

Though time put Japan as the proving ground for social evolution; eventually, they all came ’round. China too. The Great Wall flood was the result. Mikami the beacon for the loyalists that remained, saved enough to avoid total collapse– however temporarily. China was simply too massive. Their culture too isolated (even beyond the individual ones that formed the collective) to sustain such change yet.

Thus, it fell to Japan.

And Japan, really, was men like Hideo Mikami.

The late 20th century GMO cropping that looked to eradicate world hunger– and generate billions in profit– was the vision of a few, appropriately placed and motivated men. One of whom, by virtue of his familial association with Mikami, began funneling various, excess-profits to fund new, advanced research and development divisions.

One of which spiraled into a catch-22 of public extortion on a scale never before seen.

Mikami’s engineers began small, and though with the best of intentions, made fools of the lot of themselves by not safe-guarding their own creations. Cross-bred genetics of common corn-crops– spliced with chromosomes from other, more exotic flora– allowed for faster, heartier growth and greater parasitic resistance.

Despite media and clergy alike rebelling, Mikami’s crops were being designed, bred, and sold. Globally. And they were not alone. Other corporations, both big and small, had begun devoting themselves to similar research.

Competition had begun.

Most notably in the form of Locust Group. Although a world a way, they were already dividing the Western Hemisphere between itself and their local competitors. Meanwhile, and alhough it didn’t wasn’t apparent for decades, Mikami was slowly securing the Eastern one even then.

Just as Cameron Mobility and Arc Systems later used technology to their advantage, beginning a global phenomenon with Augs, their software; so too did Mikami and L-G begin revolutionizing agriculture. This time, through specialized seeds, parasite resistant crops, and ultra-powerful fertilizers.

Following in Mikami’s footsteps, Locust Group began designing and manufacturing farm equipment. The difference, theirs was especially made for deployment and maintenance of proprietary products. Specifically, seeds. Their seeds.

Reduce a problem to its simplest components; find what links them. This is the clutch. The system cannot function without it. Except this system was society. The clutch, food.

Innocuous in infancy, but criminal by learned definitions. And Learning took time. Problem was, once the potential damage was revealed, it had already been done. Locust and Mikami’s G-M crops were taking root in soils world-wide. The latter with contracts that more or less secured the same strangle-hold as the former, however temporarily offset by lack of infrastructure.

That infrastructure would be built in time. With it, would come signs of the system already gearing up to exploit it. The question was how. The answer proved to be Agriculture itself. And not just that, but anything related to it.

Food.

It was obvious to any child that walked into a supermarket; so much food, all for no-one, but there solely to service corporate greed masked as economics. At the same time, that child not being allowed to waste or want for what others had none of. It was irreconcilable.

But having invested so much into their development, it was difficult for even the neutral to deny some rights to claim over ownership of their patents. All that was required, and indeed came to pass, in short order, was that only modified crops existed or were sold. All of which were patented.

Furthermore, most of those patents were held by Mikami or Locust Group; one of their few, distant competitors. Arguments aside, courts repeatedly ruled in favor of the money. Why wouldn’t they? They’d received theirs by the truck-full…

From rather generous donors….

Whether through lobbies, contracts, or outright bribery, corporate claim of nature became legally endorsed. Brows rose. In-the-know citizens scoffed at so-called Corporate Innovation Acts; various legal measures and means of governments and industry ceding power to corps.

Both light and dark-net dwellers attempted to rebel, however peacefully. They fought to expose the strangling rhetoric within the C-I Acts. The first to be ratified, to no-one’s surprise, took place in the United States. It was only months before similar laws were ratified by Global trade and governmental unions.

The take-over was brutal, swift, but not entirely thorough. It didn’t need to be, of course. Money drew money. What little they hadn’t hoovered-up would come back in trade down the line. For now the corps were sitting pretty, everything in their hands.

But the skies had darkened.

The rumors had long rumbled; farmers, pestered and extorted over their own land, now saw it stolen beneath their feet for refusing to willingly hand it over. Those that did not, were forced to grow only certain crops, face outrageous taxation. The fees, obvious roadblocks to civil-disobedience, made them slaves in their own homes, to their own lands.

The protests that erupted then were different. They were not digital. Not peaceful. They were violent. Lashing outs. Cries for help. Spread between both urban and rural areas and peoples alike. Once the rumors turned darker, the proverbial storm had already begun to hit.

The months following the C-I Acts as if through viral-greed, mutated into the birth of the Corporate Rights Act. This act, submitted globally through corporations’ various lobbied constituents, called to guarantee certain privileges to certain parties– corporate ones to be self-defined by said corporations.

Among those championing these rapes of justice and order? Mikami and Locust Group.

Rhetoric aside, the laws allowed Corporate control of all matters related to their own creations. Unethical or outright illegal, it didn’t matter; Corporations could now act with impunity under certain conditions.

Mikami and L-G, in silent agreement, began a series of dauntingly public lawsuits against farmers who’d refused to purchase their crops. The result sent one message; Sofu Mikami was dead and dust. And so were his ways.

Existing contracts, AG-Corps argued, held farmers in obligation to use their products. The courts, long bought and paid for, retaliated for the farmers’ attempts to rebel. The companies managed to bankrupt them, seizing their land, assets, and lives in the process.

Locust Group and Mikami were guilty of this, but they were not alone. Worse, it only began then. It continued for decades– until the last of the rebels were dead and gone. The public decried the acts of course, but ultimately, the laws were clear; farmers had violated contracts.

Despite the legalese, it was clear therein such responses were within the scope of presented and accepted possibility. It made perfect sense in all the wrong ways.

The storm settled into its fury as farmers saw the signs of things to come. The first groups prosecuted were soon recognized for the examples they were. The ones meant for any who might think to defy corporate authority. Mikami and L-G were merely the most egregious examples in retrospect, hardly the only.

The power taken from the people as a whole had soon became obvious while further clashes cemented reality and history. Before, violation was based solely on refusal, disuse; now writ stipulated corps held power as judge, jury, executioner, and landlord.

Agriculture had become mercenary work for corporate bidders; contractors renting out their own land, sweat, and blood to the whims of Mikami and L-G’s greed. Or dying for their refusal.

History later showed the greed did not end but began there. By then, the whims were iron-fists. The rules were chains. Their locks and keys life-and-death. Farmers– normal people tilling land for the good of all, had been robbed, enslaved, forced to bleed and murder their land and selves without so much as a personal garden to show for it.

Obligation further forced the use of unproven, sometimes dangerous chemical pesticides and fertilizers. These chems, created with catalysts to deactivate GM-Crops’ growth inhibitors, were at times the cause of utter ruin. Not only Earth, but life as well: Corp-products for Corp-crops that wouldn’t grow otherwise were killing people from corporations’ own knowing ignorance.

What little choice remained finally vanished. It had long been clear those caring for Earth and Food were seen as undeserving of the sweat of their brow. No longer shackled to the land, those pioneer-descendants uprooted and returned to the aether, searching for their next and imminent, Great Unknown.

Such was the nature of the Corporate-takeover.

No matter how insidious, subtle, or egregious, it was unstoppable. No matter where or how, Mikami and their ilk conquered. Through money or law; they bought what they wanted and mugged for the rest whether through their execs, their endless legal teams, or the system itself.

As larger scales later proved, in one fell swoop, Mikami and L-G had monopolized Agriculture. Food. With it went animal husbandry. Vegetable and fruit plants. Trees. Gardening itself even became a crime under proper circumstances.

However ludicrous these notions, human acts persisting since the dawn of their species were no longer allowed. People could no longer cultivate; merely stagnate. Their world withering in lock-step rhythm with it, its corporate masters ever tightening the leash to ensure it through Earth and Food.

Hard Lessons: Part 7

7.

Let it be Known

Titus’ hand pressed Crystal’s shoulder, lingering just long enough to impart its impressions. She was already awake, hiding it out of curiosity to see how he might waking her. The cot at the rear of their room certainly wasn’t winning contests for comfort, but sleep was precious, no matter the job.

And it was better than the stinking, half-rotted floor beneath. Even through hint of occasional grass, tobacco, rations, and tech, the rot-stink pervaded. It was always there, beneath the surface.

Crystal’d rose to find a to a reserve of it in her sinuses, sat up, cringing and blinking hard.

Titus gestured at the table, “You’re up, Cee.” His eyes were bloodshot from fatigue and fresh smoke.

She yawned again, checked her HUD time, “Extra hour?.”

“I was re-calibrating the drones anyway. Supposed to rain.”

Her HUD winked. Weather forecasts appeared at a thought. She saw his meaning; a massive storm system, blowing in off the Pacific. The last, fading gasps of summer-water upheaval. They’d have another hour or so before the hit, then days of wet, soggy cold.

“Think he’ll use it?” Crystal asked. Titus nodded.

I would too.

Crystal stood to stretch, then took her place at the computers. The screens’ contrast were dialed up via cams, compensating for pitch-black night. 3 AM Jackstaff before a storm always had an eerie stillness. Were life a horror movie, it would’ve been the moment before a monster struck his first victim.

Eerieness always existed in that peculiar setting. The effect of a line being tip-toed up to until then. One pervading despite remote cameras, walls between. The usual shudder along Crystal’s spine confirmed it, but few whom knew the streets as she did would have denied it.

Titus’ voice ripped her back to reality. “Gonna’ change out the batteries before I sleep.”

“I can,” Crystal offered, suspecting an ulterior motive.

“Nah, it’ll help me relax after staring at the screens. Meditative. You know?”

She smiled; he was lying. Poorly. Both of them knew it.

She settled in her chair, “You say so…”

He disappeared for a few minutes. Distant sounds of climbing preempted drones and wind. Crystal cycled the various camera feeds until bucking tumble of Titus’ face appeared. He tucked something into a pocket, then disappeared into the darkened warehouse beneath it.

Crystal shook her head, inexplicably amused by the poker face he’d poised himself on. She brought up another pair of feeds from the front and rear of her bike in a nearby alley. The tiny, pinhole views doubled on a minute corner of her HUD.

She typed to kill the few minutes she’d need. She wouldn’t bother primping. Too suspiciouns and off-putting, like she knew something. She wasn’t supposed to know anything. Then again, she might not were she not so good.

She highlighted a section of code to actively edit it. The feeds shifted, re-saturating and changing brightness and contrast values to better illuminate the night. Titus’ pseudo-nightvision program taken to a next, logical level in the off-hours or when killing time.

Titus set the drones on a folding table, “Still haven’t found anyone to replace Jonas?”

“No-one I trust. Wouldn’t have trusted Jonas eventually either. You want someone else rooting around in your skull?”

He caught her drift. “Yeah. He was a skunk– a slippery ball of filth. And the best fence around.” He didn’t need to say; Curie’s still trying to trace everything we lost.

She did say, “and his data’s gone, I know.”

Deadman switch on his bio-mons, hooked into his networks via HUD hacks, too. If he’d been killed one foot out the door, or seen it coming, the servers would’ve gone into lock down. Accessible, but safe. Instead, nothing. He and Curie had designed the fail-safes that way. With Titus’ help.

All the same, Titus could only shrug. He set the drone on the cot to work a screw-driver at its belly. “Never said anything about baby Dale.”

Crystal hesitated, caught off-guard. “He’s an asshole. One more of ‘em. What’s to say?”

“Most assholes aren’t sharing a house with you,” Titus reminded.

She saw where he was headed, suddenly wondered if he did. All the same, she replied in earnest fashion, “True, but it’s not my business, Titus. Angela’s my sister, my mentor. She knows I’m here if she needs me. I can do nothing else ’til the situation outgrows her.”

He focused on the drones, working the screw-driver across one side, depositing the screws on a mag-mat. “Don’t have much family, do you, Cee?”

“Deep-personal now?” She asked, brow rising.

“It’s relevant,” he admitted tacitly.

“No. Why?”

Titus cleared his throat, exchanging one battery for another before speaking with experience, “Only one thing’s stronger than sibling love; Sibling rivalry.”

“I don’t follow,” she said, attuned.

“Think’a the person you’d sacrifice yourself for before allowing to die.”

She muttered, “Angela.”

He set one drone aside for the other. “Now, imagine she’s part of you. Like one-use detachable gear. One for life. Or nothing.”

“Now, if I told you she wasn’t worth feeling that way over. Knowing her importance, what she’s done for you. Multiply by the strength of blood. Then you’ve got an idea how powerful the bond is.”

Crystal’s shoulders slumped as a deep sigh escaped. She wished he wasn’t, but Titus was right. No matter the bond she shared with Angela, Lucas’ would always be stronger. There wasn’t any way around it.

Until now, she’d been doted upon by a sibling she’d never had. One that knew just how bad “Mom and Dad” could be. Angela’d rescued her from hell, and brought her into a world of luxury she still wasn’t sure how to cope with. Part of her was jealous. Sure.

The rest was frightened.

Lucas was bad news. Everyone saw it. Everyone too, saw Angela’s vulnerability in him; her blindness. The last vulnerability Angela had shown nearly killed her. More than that, Crystal had to admit her own vulnerability was Angela herself.

Titus was right, too, though; Crystal didn’t have family. Angela and Arthur were the closest thing in her mind. They were logical, rational, always there when chips were down. Otherwise, they weren’t. That was the trade-off.

Or so some would have believed. Ultimately though, what Titus was forcing her to accept was that she could treat them as family, but that there were limits to Angela and Arthurs’ loyalties, however extreme.

She trusted Angela, loved her because she’d offered her a second chance. Never judged her for taking it Even for needing it. She loved her for what she’d given to the poor, homeless girl she pulled off the street. Her first act on meeting had been benevolence. That was the Angela she knew and loved. That was why she trusted her.

But whatever version of her Lucas knew, couldn’t be that. No-one could look at her and do to them what Lucas could. No-one could see her benevolence, gorge themselves on it as if the true purpose for its existence.

At least, no-one worth seeing it in the first place.

Crystal was catapulted through memories of her own life before Angela’s offer, her training.

The utter disbelief her first night on the street. Sleeping in her own backyard, being chased from her gated community by security the next morning. That first night beyond; true street-living. All the years succeeding it. The scrounged meals. Dead-rats. Stale bread. Rotten potatoes chunked into potluck soups. Showers beneath leaky roofs during cold rain. Shivering beside trash-can fires. Bleeding into napkins.

Before she knew what was happening, Titus was crouched beside her.

“Crystal?”

She snapped back to reality; the catapult landed her right back in her seat. Her cheeks were wet. She was completely shocked by their seemingly sudden appearance. She breathed deep to regain her wits.

“You alright?” Titus asked gently, sensing what had happened. The pain was too deep to be otherwise.

She hesitated; she’d expected something scornful. A slight hint of reprimand for her unprofessional shift. She received none. Rather, he was comforting, understanding. His eased her whitened grip from the chair’s arm.

She blinked out tears, trembling from the sudden hold and release of fugue-state. “Yeah. Fine. Sorry.”

Titus was unconvinced, “Cee, if–“

“What? No. I–” She cut herself off at a sniffle, recomposed herself. “I’m not sure where that came from. Honest.”

“You were frozen. Tranced out.” She agreed, discretely curious of his thoughts on the matter. He provided without prompt to soothe her. “Happens with a lot of street-kids. I got lucky. Angela did too. We didn’t come from the street.”

He corrected himself, “Not like you did, anyhow. It’s like PTSD. Repressed trauma causing intense internal seizure, like a panic attack. But too sudden in appearance and short in length. It hits hard but doesn’t linger.”

She nodded knowingly, suddenly aware of his hand on hers. As if feeling cued to, he pulled away to stand and clear his throat. Neither the time nor place. She agreed, for now.

“If it’s personal. That’s cool. But like with Angela, you gotta’ know I’m here.”

Her cheek twitched in a pained half-smile as she met his gaze, “I’ll… keep that in mind.”

Angela emerged from her room finding Lucas manning Fort Couchlandia with Jack Daniels at the watchtower. Net vids streamed on the TV, droning a fatiguing boredom to Match its viewers’. She checked her HUD, spying it as a little after Seven AM.

Two hours from now, she’d be meeting one of Curie’s contacts, receiving the last details for her job later in the evening. Until then, she’d have to prep a plausible excuse for keeping Lucas occupied.

She shuffled past, “Why’re you up so early?”

“Don’t sleep much,” he said distantly.

“I see that.”

She readied a pot of coffee, sensing Arthur’s lingering presence nearby. She sensed he wasn’t willing to interrupt– or wait on Lucas. She ignored it until she had a cup of coffee in hand, was sinking onto the couch near her brother. He flipped vid streams with remote-macros.

A weather-cap revealed the storm system currently releasing hell on them. It was moving slowly inland, brewed in a last, desperate attempted gasp of fury in summer’s wake. She checked external cam feeds on her HUD, saw it was already raining, heavily.

“Shit’ll last all weekend,” Lucas grumbled.

“Gotta’ date?”

He half snarled, clearly irritated by something other than her, “Nah.”

She stared dully at the television, sipping her coffee. It was a few minutes before her brain worked up the wherewithal to relay her usual cover story for the night. She got up to make another cup of coffee, then sat back beside Lucas.

“I have a work meeting later, then a dinner thing. You okay here by yourself?”

He eyed her sarcastically, “I’m a big boy, Angie, I can handle a few hours alone.”

She rolled her eyes, “You know what I mean.”
“I’ll be fine. Maybe a little bored.”

She saw where he was headed, glanced back at the keyboard where their keys hung. The Chevelle keys were missing. Only one explanation; Arthur took them. She flushed, hiding irritation and embarrassment behind her coffee cup. She gave the blood in her face a moment to subside then spoke loud enough for the old coot beyond the door to hear.

“I’ll leave a set of keys and some cash for you. Go out. Enjoy yourself a bit.”

He was careful to remain aloof, “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

She stood from the couch, and headed away, stomaching a difficult reality; convincing Lucas to stay out of her way was easier than she’d expected.

Too easy.

He’d never asked what she’d done for a living. However well-off she clearly was. Yet, the lack of interest, itself, was suspicious. It left her uneasy. She resolved to let it play out. For now.

Hard Lessons: Part 6

6.

Stake out, Take out

Crystal was surprised to find herself enjoying her time away from home. Though forced to keep lights off, Titus had managed to re-tint her optical augs using certain settings. She turned it to auto-run at certain points, most notably, in the building.

In other words, they jerry-rigged her optics into night-vision.Every time she reached the warehouse’s upper floor, the settings shifted; the contrast dialed up, the brightness and saturation shifting subtly with it.

No predator-vision, but the upper-floor of the warehouse became like a faint day-light she could tweak at will.

All told though, were it not for the generally spartan surroundings, he might’ve lived there. The few cases they’d lugged in, added to the few stashed there, said this was one of Titus’ safe-houses. For now at least.

Enough was present that no-one wanted for anything in event of catastrophe, but it was infinitely more bearable with each, minute luxury you smuggled in.

For now, that translated to wanting for nothing within reason.

Crystal knew the play then. He’d likely abandon the place, compromising it if the job went right. Otherwise, he wouldn’t need it. It was like building a temporary shelter for a project too large for a shop. He’d leavewhat he didn’t want as fuel for the next person that stumbled onto it.

That was his contribution to making the world a better place. If only a part of it. Even if making dues knocking off the rest of it, he had some honor. Every one like he and Crystal did. The game-players. Fielders, middlers, fixers; didn’t matter. They all had to observe the rules or no-one played.

Presently, Crystal was prepping cabling for cameras stationed along the floor’s long, rowed windows. Most of the DSLRs were freestanding, sitting in the open but invisible by virtue of the seeming darkness inside. They were section in the main, storage area just beside the stairs.

That section separated them from the stairs beyond their main work-space’s wall. Unlike the foreman’s office they occupied, that area didn’t require additional work now. Their space did.

Crystal carefully positioned and aligned the office cameras behind their gear. She checked their feeds, rolled Titus’ heavy, dark curtains down carefully to conceal them from both sides.

The whole set-up was linked through facial recog on the small network of laptops spread along an old, six-person fold-out table.

Crystal double-checked her work as Titus slipped into place before the laptops. He keyed one up, pushing aside clay-blocks toward her and instructing her to place them in each corner of the room.

Crystal obliged, “Overkill, don’t you think?”

“Always need an exit.”

“Uh-huh, Can’t be too careful.”

“No, but you can overbuy on C4.”

She laughed, lifted a block, “Does it come with a guarantee? Lose a limb or money back?”

He chuckled, “Nothing in life’s guaranteed, Cee. You know that.”

“I guarantee you won’t explode if you don’t play with explosives,” she retorted studiously.

“Depends how you live.”

She snorted, busying herself with a table of gadgets. He settled to rhythmically scanned the feeds. Most angles of the building ahead were straight-on, more for redundancy and catching every detail and recording it.

As Titus had explained it, he had no certainties the mark would make his rounds soon. Onlyt that he should. Something might’ve changed that he’d missed, however slim the chance. No matter how careful he’d been, someone was bound to have seen him come or go.

Whether they cared enough to make note of it, or had reason to, was the question.

It was unlikely; requiring patrols and the like, things certain to draw attention. Even the few souls occupying this place wished to forget it as soon as possible. Besides, their mark didn’t like attention. Even less, drawing it. Titus was certain of that, and Crystal through him.

He and Crystal traded places for the first leg of surveillance. She settled, less tense than she’d expected. Anxiety for a job was usual. If you weren’t a little tense, your instincts– and reflexes– were shit when it came time to use them.

Too tense though, and you were equally shit.

It was all about finding the right groove to fall into. Finding the right job to fit your skills. For the uninitiated, that was finding Fixers and Middlers that saw your value too. The game required them to help put fielders in the rightful places.

Everyone needed each other, somehow.

Mostly.

She sighed, something wasn’t sitting right in her guts. Lucas, she knew. Time was the only thing left to her, for good or ill. Arthur’s intel said he was bad news. She guessed nothing would be a stretch for him. Slime was like that, malleable, thin. It needed to be to get anywhere.

Lucas oozed his slime-ball personality the way a slug oozed trails on a sidewalk; not intentionally, as more a byproduct of his existence. It was slime all the same, made clear his movements wherever he went via the sticky trail following behind. Visibly, or in the scent of his wake, he left his mark.

They’d yet to speak of it, but Titus seemed to be intentionally avoiding the conversation; enough to relay his feelings as mutual. Near-enough.

Evidently, only Angela didn’t see the danger Lucas brought. Was it any wonder though?

Angela was his sister, his family. She was one of the few people he was most practiced at deceiving. He’d have done it since childhood, starting as a kid to divert attention to and from him. Inevitably, he’d have found the various avenues and manipulations available– the cons to get what he wanted.

All of them: the few to be used anytime. The few only for emergencies. The few that never missed, usable only sparingly.

It was obvious to anyone looking inward.

In this case, everyone was outside it save the one playing and other being played. Whether or not Crystal’s interference was warranted could only be based on examples of two, specific, trash-lumps she’d called parents.

She had no experience with familial situations otherwise. At that, she’d have been better off that way. Starting from a base-line of 0 rather than -1 was net-gain in her mind. One she wasn’t privy to.

What she needed was critical thinking. A skill she’d become adept at, especially under extreme pressure. The problem was, those situations generally involved a subject she was well-versed in or confident at working with.

This was different, emotional. She was no stranger to emotions, but certainly at handling them properly. With the least collateral damage. It was a whole other world. Only Arthur’s sentiments kept her from feeling too alone.

With Titus yet to sound off, Crystal could only tell herself what she’d done was with earnest intent. Her last conversation with Angela was merely to remind and alert; even one’s family could betray.

Crystal was a prime example of that reality. Angela knew that. Well enough to know Crystal’d been cast out. Age aside, her mother favored a display-case lifestyle over her own daughter. Crystal had wallowed in that for all of a single night on the street, was otherwise occupied with staying alive thereafter.

When Angela appear, she jumped. That’s why Angela appeared. No-one knew that or the reasons therein better than the woman herself.

Crystal hoped Angela would think on things, recognize her attempts at neutrality, and avert the otherwise inevitable catastrophes that came with people like Lucas. She could do little else, save duck once shit met fan.

Titus appeared, fiddling with a tablet before leaning to type at a prompt on a screen. Crystal watched from a corner of her eye, the rest of her attention fixed on the feeds.

She cleared her throat, “So, who is this guy? Really?”

He alternated between tablet and computer, typing as he spoke, “Akira Saito. Former contact for Hiro Nakasumo, a middler.”

“Like you.”

“Mmm.”

“You knew ‘im? I thought Nakasumo only dealt with Japanese.”

“He did,” Titus replied astutely. “Ironic the one time he didn’t, he was murdered.
“More effect than the cause, Tee,” Crystral reminded. “Nakasumo was running against another fixer. You know that’s not allowed. Everyone does.”

“True, but he didn’t know it either. Saito did. He worked with whomever he could, like the rest of us. After Saito’s death, he tried turning pro, failed. Fixers never accepted him as anything more than a two-bit middle-man. Didn’t have the instinct for it.”

Crystal eyed him, “You think he set up Nakasumo? How? Curie and the others would fry him.”

“You know how the game is, Cee; we don’t carry grudges ‘less we wanna end up dead in our sleep. We care about money. Big enough job comes around, everyone sucks it up, throws down together. Even if we hate each other.

“Nakasumo didn’t work like that. He wasn’t playing the game wrong so much as trying to play a different one entirely.”

“Could’a worked if Saito’d been the loyalist type, like youf,” Crystal said of his strict one-fixer policy.

“The Madame does right by me. I do right by her. We earn income from that. Soon as that changes, we reassess, but we all know it won’t change. That’s not Curie’s style. Mine neither.”

She shrugged, more to herself than to him. “Still doesn’t explain Angela last year.”

“It does,” he corrected with a grimace. “In its roundabout way. Even the Mafia, ‘least at large, doesn’t break the rules, Cee. That’s the difference between what Nakasumo was trying to do and what Caruso did. He was trying to adapt wrong. He measured the game wrong. Caruso went to war without sanction.”

“You mean ’cause fielders are only fair-game on jobs.”

“Yeah. And off jobs, its Johns taking heat.” He reiterated what they both already knew. “There’s exceptions, but Caruso wasn’t endorsed by anyone. The Families don’t go off on whims. They’re like a corporation, a central command structure all the way down. No-one level acts without each above-level’s permission.”

She nodded, “I know. And that’s the reason they never retaliated. Far as they’re concerned, Curie– meaning us– did them a favor taking out a rogue element.

“Still doesn’t explain why we’re here. Grudge or not, nobody rips off someone they know without reason.”

He paused, focusing solely on the tablet screen. A light buzz faded up, reached full strength, then lost itself in the humming laptops. A small drone hovered near Crystal’s head, sank to buzz its camera at her face. Titus watched the tablet, thumbing it.

He began again, still focused downward, “Akira’s not a middler anymore. He’s not in the game at all anymore. That puts him outside it. Given circumstances, he could be a John or a mark. Since he stiffed me on a job, and Curie needs to occasionally flex authority, this week he’s a mark. “

“Still a grudge,” Crystal argued.

He smiled slyly, “I like to think of it as being in collections. There.

Crystal hesitated, brows furrowed. The drone returned to its charging pad behind her on recall protocol. Titus held the tablet out; her furrowed face stared back in a still, almost deranged with perplexity.

“Looks like someone dropped their pants to show a tattoo.”

Titus laughed, “Look good to me.”

“You need your eyes checked,” Crystal joked with the slightest hint of a smile.

Lucas and Angela sat across from one another in the main dining room of Aggiornamento, one of the more upscale casual places Angela frequented. Among other things, the food was exquisite. Given she hadn’t seen her brother in a decade, and that all they’d eaten together was left over bar-food, she couldn’t resist a nice meal.

They were perusing menus when Lucas whistled a bombshell dropping. “Pricey.”

She replied with a short, “Mm.”

He half-joked, “Guess I’ll owe you.”

She didn’t bother looking up. “S’on me.”

“Must been doing well. I mean damn, the chicken’s thirty bucks.”

Angela rolled her eyes. Lucas was famous for that. Anything that wasn’t skid-row was extravagance, never mind a half-chicken for twenty-eight creds was nearly the best bargain in all of Jackstaff. Especially at higher-end places. Hell, right time and place, a glass of water could cost that.

Lucas settled on a Filet Mignon with a bottle of beer; Angela fileted Salmon topped with crabmeat and shrimp. It went down with 10 year old Italian Pinot Noir.

For Angela, it was just another high-end meal. She partook at least once a week or so. This hardly bank-breaking. For Lucas, it was the most decadent meal of his lifetime. He settled into it finely.

Too finely.

He was clearly feeling atop the world. Angela didn’t notice. Things were too light. She was high on laughter, rosey-cheeked amusement, and expensive wine. Lucas soothed something deep within, so intimate, familiar, yet foreign. She couldn’t help finding herself giddy.

Drinks came and went.

Before long, Angela was ready to order an auto-cab. Lucas snatched her keys away then, “You wanna’ leave a ‘68 Chevelle overnight in a Jackstaff lot? Are you nuts?”

She blew a raspberry, half slurred, “Nothin’ll happen to it. I know th’owner.”

“C’mon. I’ll drive.”

“You’ve been drinking since breakfast,” she scoffed.

“I’m more practiced,” he said, headed for the car.

She hesitated, hurried after him. The ride home was much calmer and collected than she’d anticipated. Lucas took every corner expertly, foot tempering the allure of the 396 SS as it begged to roar. Instead, it carried them home at posted speed-limits, into the garage and the parking space without a hum out of place.

Angela stumbled into the apartment ahead of Lucas. She rounded, hugged him with a wet kiss on the cheek and a “goodnight,” then swaggered to her room and closed the door. He rounded for the hall to his room and straight into Arthur. The old man’s hand was flattened out expectantly, his face set like an angry father at a truant son’s homecoming.

“Keys.”

Lucas half-examined the old man. “Hmm? Oh. Here.”

Arthur slipped them into a pocket, eyes never faltering. “I know your game, kid. Seen it a million times. She’s family. I’m not. Put her in danger, I’ll put you in the ground.”

Arthur about-faced. The hall-door shut before Lucas snarled, slumped, and slime-trailed away.