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.

Short Story: Birth of a Tyrant

Unlike the giants of and before its time, spawned of boardroom wars and the reverse cell-division of elderly mergers, Arc Systems started in a garage with two key-jocks. Theirs was the same rags to riches tale as their one-day benefactor Cameron Mobility. A tale more rare by the day. In an era where days were already far shorter.

Night was taking over. Not true night, but night all the same. That perma-twilight hailing the realities of Sprawl living, its police-state of corp control, currency, and finally, collapse. Long before Augs and their struggle, their coder-fathers were dreaming big.

They had to be. They’d conquered the planet. Where else was there to go but parts beyond?

Countless, open-platform and proprietary systems; OS, informatics, GUIs both human and automated– all software coded for so-called next gen tech, meant to revolutionize the industry. It never did, of course, but that didn’t change that modules, portions, or whole programs of Arc’s code were running all over the world.

In short, brothers Hank and Allan Womack, were software geniuses well-placed to make change. More than Hackers, they were virtuosos. Their code backed a million computers and security systems, globally. They’d cornered market share on corporate sector when it mattered most; long before anyone else.

In their case, before anyone realized the extreme importance of software security to begin with.

Arc and the brothers were simply waiting for their opportunity, their opening. When it came, they grappled with both hands, wrestling it into submission.

An old schoolmate had seen Allan on a vacation-trip to town. Over beers, he and Allan spoke of work. Thomas Marin, former Marin Medtek CEO and now major share-holder and partner with Cameron Mobility, spoke vaguely of designing “next-gen” prosthetics.

Apprehensive but enthralled, Allan agreed to a preliminary meeting.

Truth was, everything was “next-gen” in those days. It was a buzz-word. Used by people who didn’t understand a generation was just the gap between eras. There was nothing noteworthy in the design, apart from revelations of the speaker’s ignorance.

Allan knew Thomas though. He’d never spoken in hypotheticals, was far too intelligent to be ignorant of his own implications. If he truly believed it a wave of the future, it damned well would be.

Or, at least, could be.

Thomas and his employer needed software. Good software. Cameron couldn’t risk their in-house teams knowing or screwing up the code. They wouldn’t have the chops, anyhow. They were GUI programmers, less than hobbyists in comparison to specialist virtuosos like the Womacks– Arc.

That meant outsourcing the designs, ensuring against information leaks, potential saboteurs. The best way was NDAs; small firms, a whole helluva lot of money on the line. In the end, the brothers saw no logical reasons not to pursue the contract.

Decades later, they’d remember Thomas’ arrival with the on-call Cameron Mobility Lawyer. The pair strolled into their new, strip-mall location, sat down at the six-person conference table, rented just for the occasion. There they remained…

For all of fifteen minutes.

The lawyer’s eyes said he didn’t know such squalor could exist, let alone spawn business. Hank was testy. Allan saw it in his eyes. From then on, he did the talking. Hank added only a few words for things he’d forgotten.

Intros and NDAs aside, they outlined the project’s particulars: Arc Systems would receive prototype prosthetics and comprehensive instructions on use, purpose, ability. Then, beneath corporate oversight, Arc would program them to specification regardless of time required.

Money was no object either, the brothers were assured, but the prototypes were irreplaceable. In addition, Thomas would act as liaison; the corporate oversight and link between companies, present at all meetings and often enough in the office to verify work was being done.

The Womacks received an advance, torn from a corporate check-book. The lawyer held it to himself thereafter like an undertaker his mortician’s log. Reading out zeroes but incapable of much else otherwise, the brothers Womack, Marin, and the wage-slave parted.

The rest is history. Arc Systems received the prototypes and set to work, eventually revolutionizing the prosthetic industry by forming the basis of something much larger, grander. Few innovations have had the lasting effects of Arc’s.

Even Cameron Mobility, on the cusp of every advance in prosthesis since the 1950’s, had admitted they were out of their element. Hiring the Womack’s meant bringing people skilled in tech. The same people giants and Titans of industry refused to allow pre-digital kids access to.

Ones like the Womacks, whose expertise was now invaluable, begrudgingly needed.

That collision of worlds had been long approaching, but it gave birth to bionics, Augs, everything after. Optics and mental control, though still in concept stages, existed then too. Controlled by tiny, photo-reflective rings, wire receivers, or headband-interfaces– the bases of all, optic, aural, and HUD-based controls.

The first wave of augments were designed, completed, tested. The eventual, human subjects to were merely the first prototypes of a species’ post-evolutionary dreams. Before the phenomena, the endless ethics arguments, the corporate-take over and catalysts that lead it– and the greatest mass-conflict in history…

Until then, the corporation was the future.

Arc Systems learned it first-hand, growing tenfold in its first year. By the fifth, when its contract with Cameron Mobility was finally completed, they were on-par with the Med-Tek giant. Equals, as much as two Colossi could be when not at one another’s throats.

Partnering not long after allowed the Womacks to buy out.

Selling the name was easy. In the end, it was the people that mattered. Though neither cared to anymore, nor needed to, either could have made a living working alone on hobby-projects.

Nonetheless, the two-sided blade severed something deeper, more important.

In their quest to gouge themselves on the new, black gold of trans-human and elective augments, the corporation became a monster. Each one, in its own way, contributed to the Paris Incident. Yet equally, had the brothers not contributed to the corps, history would not remember either.

The past, like the inevitability of one’s moving further from it, cannot be changed. The Giant’s birth that was Arc Systems, would one day prove more sinister than anyone could have anticipated. It would prove it was not just another giant born, but another tyrant, too.