Short Story: Tales to Tell

Tales tell that the during the birth of the world, the all-mother and all-father gave equal parts of their vitality and strength, their burden and weakness, to the seed which would become all of creation. It was this seed, once sprouted, that became all that is, was, and ever shall be.

The sprouting, really, was the Big-Bang. The forces involved still indomitable, immutable. Mother and Father. Yin and Yang. Duality was a concept spanning not just species or time, but the Universe. It was universal.

If only those first Shaman could see us now…

He was Navajo. Native-born. Walking along a road deserted nearly a century, save to the occasional wanderer like himself. Heading East. From the place where the sun sets, seeking answers where it rises. Having found none in one, he would seek them elsewhere.

The sun gleamed off sweat-glistened skin. Deeply tanned, yet still burnt by the pounding sun. He had been in it days, looked it. Like a cactus after a particularly bad drought and a fresh sandstorm. He had survived, as all young Navajo boys learned to: off the land. He never had fears about crossing the Desert, only weariness and lack of need.

He was no fool though. His mother had raised him right after his father left: why, no-one knew–he suspected, not even his father. Like him, he now walked alone, though considerably wiser for his cautionary tale.

Kurt said it best: “See the cat? See the cradle?”

He walked on, unfazed. Desert roads were abandoned even before the fall of civilized man. What the locals had foreseen and called Teotwawki. It came and went. Out here, it was almost impossible to tell. Yet somehow, perhaps through his blood, he sensed the land’s unnatural emptiness.

Another tale tells of a Great Spirit whom came forth during a harsh drought. Prompted by the people’s offerings to bring rain upon the land so the crops might grow, it appeared to a Chieftain whom lamented his people’s dire need. Though none could corroborate him, he said it requested this:

That all people of the village come at nightfall to the grove where he then spoke. There, he proclaimed, he would come to bestow upon them the will of rain, but only on the proceeding night. All but one man went: an old warrior whose will had broken with his soul at the loss of both vitality and heart– his bodily strength, and his wife.

So the Great Spirit appeared to the Warrior, granting he alone the power of Rain.

Out here, the end of the world didn’t seem so bad. In a way, it had been the most prepared for the end of the world. Already the least surviving. The desert was a place of death, everyday survival. A perfect analogue for everything the world had suffered and seen.

Although he admitted, if only to himself, he wouldn’t have survived much else.

It was crucial to know one’s limits. As a boy, the Elders had been strict on this. It was, they said, the root of all Human downfall. His grandmother had said it more succinctly– usually slurring whiskey, “Great-Spirit blessed us with balls and brains and blood for one.”

In his heart, he knew both were saying the same thing: those whom did not proceed with caution most often suffereda final fall.

He made camp by an archway in an alcove of stone. Firelight threw shadows back in flickering riposte to reality’s light-play. They danced and grooved along striated sandstone witness to more death and decay than most of Human-kind could comprehend. It grooved right back.

He passed the night on warm sand, propped only a little uncomfortably against the alcove. Anywhere else in the world would’ve been too dangerous to do such a thing. Sleeping, randomly just off a highway: a good way to be robbed or worse.

But out here there was no-one, and it was for the best. He tended toward pacifism, if only because he had seen the damage the alternative would do. In the rest of the world, that was often interpreted as weakness. Too many predators. The last thing he’d want to do is harm someone.

Though he certainly could.

A third tale tells of a sickness that raged within the people of a village. The Shaman there could do no good. His traditional herbs and medicines had failed him. Worse, winter was growing thicker after a drought-thinned harvest. Resources through-out the village were stretched too thin. Thus, it fell upon he, as Shaman, to guide the Tribe from the brink of total-death.

Though none said it, the people of the village sought his guidance. Yet they also feared his inability to heal their ailing. He was, after all, one man and an old one at that. Though the people said none of this, he felt it all the same.

He worked tirelessly through the day and night to treat and stabilize the ill. With his medicinal stocks dwindling, he had no choice but to seek aid from a neighboring village. One which, by virtue of their adversarial history, might have easily led to his death.

Yet if he did not try, the village would perish.

At the rival village, he found the same sickness ravaging the people. Their Shaman, one of the eldest and wisest, had been first to fall ill. Due to his own, hidden infirmities, he succumbed. Without his guidance, the apprentice Shaman could do little save his best.

The Elder Shaman arrived, but rather than take charge of his stores as a villain might, he taught the rival Shaman all he knew. Together, the pair healed both villages and re-forged their long addled bond.

He came upon a carcass on the side of the road. Decayed to dusty, tanned-human stretched over bone. Its shape and size still identified it: Young. Human. Female. Probably escaped from a den somewhere, held against her will. Looked decades, could’ve been days.

Humans were animals: beastial. Depraved.

He would have to be more careful here. The kinds of creatures that frightened others into choosing such deaths over theirs were true evil.

An Elder had taught him once of evil, that it was a realm of malevolent Spirits seeking to control man. The other Spirits, those to which they gave praise during certain acts or events, were the Benevolent ones. He believed in neither. Not the way he knew they had believed, but in the way they were meant to be. He understood them.

A final tale tells of an old warrior, spirit bleeding and body broken. Day and night he wept in private, soul ravaged by loss of body and love. When at last the Warrior cried to the Great Spirit to ask what evil he’d wrought to have such sorrow befall him, the Spirit appeared.

There, he alone was granted the power to bring rain to his drought-stricken village with tears.

The warrior, feeling this a final slight wept greater than ever. His cries were heard from the village’s outskirts as the rains suddenly began to fall. They found him weeping, kneeling amid the falling rain. There, they came to understand.

And comforted him.

He never again cried, but they never again felt drought either.

He’d heard them in the night from far off. In the desert, sound carried forever. Distinguishable from the dead stillness like needles in the spine. The vibration of something, not far enough off, disturbing the stillness.

He did not sleep, but rose as soon as the sun began to peer over the ancient stone and sand dominating the nearby world. He started off, having seen nor met no-one and almost certainly having retained his anonymity. He remained on guard until, at last, the vibrations trickled back into nothing and he was alone again.

He had never feared them. Not really. Fear was a thing for the unprepared. He was prepared. Alert even. He had one goal, and might not live to see it, but didn’t see any reason he wouldn’t, just accepted he might not. For now, he supposed that was enough.

He walked on.

Short Story: Natural Forces

Culture killed the corps. Lack of it, really.

Culture never fit with the rest of the Corporation as an entity. In retrospect, it was the tell-tale sign of their self-awareness. Culture’s a byproduct of collective, self-aware entities and their existence. Corporate culture though was bland and cold. Real culture was far too vibrant to be mistaken for the non-entity that was Corp culture.

It was night and day.

And in the minds of most people, that’s what it became. The cold, bland, workaday world for wage-slaves and sell-outs. The rest was night. And because of light pollution the corps sold us with bullshit lies, the nights were getting brighter and longer.

It wasn’t ’til Web 2.0 fractured that any change really became apparent though:

Digitally, Humanity had always looked like one, prosperous group formed of a melange of diversity. Fractured though, the two groups didn’t fit. Simply, one was much smaller– far too small to be doing what was being done. That defied visible reality.

Then came the black-market and the bit-currency boon. In the corporate world, the biggest fish ate first. For once though, the corps weren’t it.

Cameron Mobility sold the world its first Augment, but it was people that designed and built it. Specifically, black-marketpeople. In the same way open-source software was designed; in revision-states to rapidly hone designs through the dual forces of need and skill.

It was that same market, firmly ensconced in shadow and belonging to the palaces of thieves, hackers, fixers, their nets of scum and villainy, that finally did the world good.

Yes, the other bazaar. The digital one. Of blacks and whites. Ones and zeros. Where only desire and money existed. And only to serve one another. The same market that once pilfered tea, ran moonshine, hired out hitmen, and sold illicit goods globally.

It was the all-encompassing culture of need/want/payment. One of a new age going nowhere but forward and regardless of its supposed amorality. Nothing would stop it.

The why was simply; the culture really killing the corps was their own. Or rather, the veneer of one they’d formulated from the requirements for complicit employees. Corporate culture had no personability to it. At the end of a long day of number crunching, between work and dinner, no corporate occupier remained to cling to. No external influence for those few times it was needed.

Living without that inspired no security or comfort, and Humans rejected the unfamiliar.

The inherent flaw in the corporations’ system was that their sole concern was only and forever profit. It wasn’t profitable to be clung to; to keep the lights on after 5. To man the sails for the few nights that weren’t calm for the people temporarily below-decks.

After all, profits can’t be maximized with skeleton-crews costing the ship hazard-pay. Those were premium rate-times! Electricity was worth more then. Keeping lights on and people working thinned the margin. No matter how little the consumer needed them. That wasn’t the corporate way. Corporatism was living and dying by the dime, being always and forever in the black.

People didn’t get that guarantee, because they couldn’t give it.There was no corporate-prayer service for when baby’s diaper exploded across the kitchen, and parents need a solvent to clean with. There was no corporate-barricade barring the front door against their own, unwanted intruders. There wasn’t even a corporate-identity. The thing simply existing as part of an individual’s designation. Their actual titles were designed as reflowable to adjust to ever-shifting political-correctness.

But people were all of those things and more.

The mistake was moulding people to an existence between 9AM and 5PM. That world’s totality at your voluntary request, but nonexistent otherwise. And when it did not exist, you did not exist. It was no different than being released from chain-gang to pass time, too tired and battered to do more than daydream, intentionally.

And why wouldn’t people be so battered? Two generations of corporate formation and overt political-correctness had dulled even the sharpest wits. People needed only accept the bargain was good enough for slaves. Since slaves were good and slavery bad, it was good for you, right?

Most people swallowed it without resistance. The chains came later; after compliance but before realization.

The manipulation was obvious. More-so from the outside. Unfortunately few were heard through the din. General insanity had filled the world, post digital-age. Sheer-will oozed enough through to the more enlightened among them. Those few, also broken and damaged, saw no peaceful strategy remaining.

The message for them was clear; run.

The few whom did eventually became the Resistance’s spine and the nerves along its central column. They were more fortunate than most. No more or less intelligent, just aware and better-positioned. They saw enough of the barrel aimed at them to know to duck.

They jumped ship right up ‘til the war, ensuring the survival of the culture they defected to. Their own immortality assured therein. Living as they did ensured they remained important symbols, even if it was all they knew of how, why, what for.

Nowhere was this more obvious than the Aug movement, whose champions themselves formed the very leadership of Corp-Resistance. The results of those champions eventually led to the Fall. They’d begun the right way, simply shifted their focus after circumstances allowed– or rather forced, them to.

That base strategy was straight from the Corp-playbook; re-branding. It had another name too, one far more powerful to a disenfranchised group seeking something more; Evolution. The one the corps had used time and again to validate their actions. The difference was, the scale would allow change in totality, and with utterly no chance or path of reversion.

Of course rallying around Lemaire’s death was convenient; the Paris Incident and its ignition of the Two-Week War forced the few undecided to finally choose sides. The unfortunate side-effect was untold deaths from Corps bombing civilians and rioters alike. Basically, a tantrum of epic portion.

A toll that might’ve been entirely avoided was laid at the feet of every person, man, woman, and child for seeing the injustices and not fighting back. No matter the side of the fence, Lemaire’s death signaled people were no different to Corps than any other expendable resource.

Between rumored brain-hacks, the car-bomb, and the scapegoating of Aug aggression as its cause, it was a wonder the fuse burned so long between times. That it did was a testament to the kind of change people needed, hoped for. It was hesitation that admitted they didn’t want to fuck things up, were damned well working not to, but that peaceful routes were running their course.

And they did.

The fuse burned down, sparking a global implosion that resulted in total collapse of Corporate existence. Culture did that. Or the attempt at one. People were objects; materials, resources. That wasn’t right. Ethics aside, it held no logic.

People weren’t meant to be resources bought, sold, traded, or exploited– they weren’t supposed to be consumed; they were supposed to consume.

But they weren’t consuming and only a few others were. A very select few. So few, in fact, even fewer could overthrow them en-masse no matter their own power. If played right, they needed only tease the promise of what Corps had yet never offered; personalized personability.

The tailoring of anything to one’s desires and without judgment or restriction formed the true foundation of the Resistance. The cultural renaissance that followed saw the futility in things like market-power over-regulation and censorship, because markets regulated power naturally once large enough.

The only barrier to accepting it at the broadest level was feeling outside of it. One could refuse improving a systemic culture more easily if they were part of it themselves. Especially if that culture needed no foundational improvements.

Later, of course, the truth of the illusion was revealed and people had no reason not to accept the new culture, but the totality of the corporate collapse by then, had little to do with the war itself.

It was the people fighting that mattered. Each had their own ideas and visions of a place in this potentially open and globally-connected world. Whether that was through innovations in tech or philosophy, there was no reason people couldn’t negotiate compromise, save competition.

Competition though, no longer needed to exist. In the postdigital age, everyone was equal. The resources were all there; scattered, certainly, but there and only in need of re-distribution. Competition wasn’t necessary anymore, only intelligent planning.

The former was a remnant of the Pre-Human era that survived because of its robustness and ubiquity in a fear-driven world. No longer required, competition could be officially relegated to an exercise in adrenaline, or for conflicts on scales larger than yet-Humanly possible. Those involved in it were glad to have it, while the rest were glad to be rid of it.

Competition could survive as little more than a new-age art-form and thus had no reason not to.

It was simple physics; paths of least resistance. The more a thing clamored to fulfill its role, the more energy it expended and the less effective it was at survival, if only rhetorically.

In short; Evolution was the process of honing biological life to perfection through the mechanism of adaptation. The same went for revision with software, and could go for change with Society.

In other words, constant, minor adjustments and refinements ensured survival. Whether from intent or will, nothing need be handled differently anymore because everything could be quantified, somehow. Quantity itself then became an art; of machined numbers and datum, but an art nonetheless.

Most importantly, if input into the right system, such principles of postdigital progress could do anything, anybody wanted.

In that way, Lemaire’s Resistance wasn’t a resistance at all. It was simply a majority overthrowing a former minority. The newly-dethroned disseminated power gained and lost by the likes of snake-oil salesman, brill-creamed con-men, and dark-spectaled suits. They’d formed pacts to better position their marks to buy and sell them back and forth en-masse, and panicked to death when people finally realized it was happening and ended it.

It took time though– and because of the severity of the grievances, blood.

Yet the foresighted once more led the way to light. It just so happened, that light was also the Resistance, thereby bringing to the fight many whom might have chosen pacifism for sake of family or obligation. That same devotion however, then allowed those lost to become paragons to those that remained.

As if through sheer need of people, the remembered became symbols to rallyboth groups and individuals. It was in this way Lemaire’s death had caused the Paris Incident.

The truly egregious trigger-point for outrage was the volatile mixture of changing culture meeting the bombings that followed.Lemaire was corporate, but human. Used and discarded. She was, like all peoplenow; just a resource, a statistic. One who’d outlived her time in the black, was now in the red from the media-risk inherent in her. Therefore, corporate culture dictated she be zeroed-out as quickly, quietly, and cleanly as possible.

The cheapest, most effective way required exploiting her death at larger scalesto maximize effectiveness. The corporate way dictated a car-bomb to suittheir desires. In one move, they could placetheir currently-manufactured scapegoats– Augs– from the news of the week (Aug aggression) in bed with long-running narratives against conventional fuels and private transport.

That idea secure, they buried reality beneath vague reports, inconsistent datum, late retractions, and less-publicized revisions– for clarifications no less vague but masked as natural fog.

And it backfired. In Totalilty.

People had been at odds with the cultural-divide too long. Nothing remained to cling to of the corporate entity. Money was killing everyone. Any residual effects and influence of corporate veneer too weak to distract from that. Rose-colored glasses could no longer be any less-jaded. More than, that they could now take off the glasses, see the vibrant world beyond.

Ultimately, what killed corps was a simple reality: Corporate culture was a construct. Culture was a natural force.

Hard Lessons: Part 14

14.

Meanwhile

Angela stood beside her bed, the clock there synced to her HUD and both reading 12 AM. Unbeknownst to her, Crystal and Titus were currently stuffing gear into packs in a race against the clock. She, on the other hand, had all the time in the world.

Lucas had received his latest cocktail beside her on the couch, where she’d sat until after he’d fallen asleep. The reason was simple; if Angela had learned anything, it was that some things couldn’t happen alone. Once Lucas had fallen into his restless sleep, she’d left for some herself. His rehab schedule meant aligning to his use schedule; midnight and midday dosings with sleep somewhere between.

She centered herself at the bathroom mirror with her own, liberal doses of water, pot, and whiskey, then made for the kitchen. An undeniable, sibling responsibility had consumed her. While Lucas was hardly a child, even less likely to ask for help than a hit, her duty was tending to him rather than his ego.

She approached the island, spying a scratchy-note. Sudden fear erupted in her chest. The agony of every troubled-child’s environment reared. Her fear was confirmed in fewer words than felt fair:

I can’t do this, Angie. Thanks for trying.

I love you, sis.

The writing was shaky, done with obvious speed and jitters. He’d run. She panicked. Completely.

She spun in frantic circles, eyes trailing. Her head ached, mind racing unable to comprehend anything. Bilious stomach acid was already bubbling up. Her brain smeared the images her eyes clawed for purchase on. It found none, and nothing coherent otherwise.

All in hope, for some sign that he was there, had changed his mind. Panic had never so thoroughly seized her. She neared a faint amid dizziness that toppled her sideways. She had the vauge and distant notion of catching herself on the island, fighting to breathe.

In reality, she wailed, sobbing. The open-close of a door didn’t register. She was too consumed. She collapsed, caught by a vague but familiar form and weight. Arthur’s gravel-throat was rolling over her skin, vibrating her bones, but nothing was audible outside her the piercing ring of her own mind.

She was a sub on full-alert, reporting damage; a computer throwing errors before a crash. She needed a reset, and there was no avoiding it. Before she knew what had happened, she’d gotten it.

She emerged from her fugue state unaware any time had passed. It had, copiously. Only then could she comprehend the melange of terror, guilt, panic, and grief that had gripped her.

Her body tensed, released. Her muscles gave one last, minor tremor, and she breathed normally again.

Had he not worked for her so long, Arthur might have questioned her sanity. He’d been hired to run security by Julia, but also to keep an eye on Angela during her recovery. If it could have been called that. In truth, it wasn’t much more than the re-awakening any person experienced after surviving and leaving street-living.

In all those years, Angela had been tearful precisely twice. Once, when she returned with Julia’s dead body in her arms. Then, once after being tortured by the bastard that had killed her. Both circumstances were extenuating, obvious.

This wasn’t.

Yet Arthur knew its origins. He’d sensed them. As he sensed the breakdown that drew him to her. Apart from the obvious, there was the deeper, unspoken geyser of emotion now drained like her many tears. That geyser, formed over decades of emotional neglect, abuse, and manipulation was thought to have been forever been covered, quieted.

Instead, the pressure had built from deep quaking– her brother’s re-appearance. Consciously or not, she’d known that pressure would mount, release, destroy anything in its way. This time, she was lucky. It had only damaged what little emotional resistance remained around her childhood, and not the world around her.

Arthur cradled her in silence, dutifully sentinel. He knew little of the Dale home-life directly, but he’d gathered enough. Family of five– four for most of Angela and Lucas’ lives. Heavily sheltered. Criminally so. Forcibly intrusive. Obsessive. Repressive. The list went on.

The Dale parents were obsessed with keeping their children on certain, proscribed paths. As a result they’d wedged themselves into every aspect of their children’s lives for one purpose; control. Where that could not extend, they cajoled and intimidated, demanding constant reports of every moment of their absence.

What wasn’t mandated as part of their cult-like mentality, didn’t exist.

Except that it did. Angela had always known that. Lucas too. Because there was evidence of it everywhere you looked. No doubt, Alison knew it now too– Arthur hoped, for Angela’s sake.

Arthur could only liken the Dale parents to the blind-faithed, ignorant fools forcing friends and family into Jonestown before offering them Flavor-Aid. Certainly, by any metric the damage their children had suffered indicated their unfitness as human beings, let alone parents.

There was never a question to Angela’s emotional instability existing. Rather, it was if the miracle she’d managed was genuine; was her stability as real as it seemed? Lucas had the same inability to process emotion, but did his sister have no greater grace or resolve?

Arthur might’ve forgiven Lucas for everything else, but forcing that question erased any remaining sympathy he had. To be forced to compare someone like Angela to the less-than-dirt-beneath-a-shoe that was Lucas was too much.

He was putting his foot down, and beneath it was going to be Lucas’ gut. Angela had given him everything he wanted, and needed. If something weren’t done soon, she’d keep hurting herself for someone undeserving of even her consideration, let alone her blood.

Angela emerged from the ruptured-Earth her emotions left behind, almost entirely unaware of reality. The grip that had seized her was total, extending through every muscle and nerve in her in her body. There it had put her into lock-down, technically still living, but hard pressed to be called it.

She’d managed to wrest herself away from Arthur because her body’d relaxed naturally. Arthur coaxed her slowly back to speech, offering her anything she wanted. He sat beside her on the kitchen floor; old, bum leg stretched out alongside the island. The other propped him upright.

Angela stared, afflicted by waves of flickering thoughts. “I knew it would happen,” she croaked finally. She wet her throat, “I knew it would happen and I still let him get to me.” She cast a desperate look about, “Why’d I let him get to me?”

“Some people matter enough they’ll always get to us. Always. No matter how we fight, they win.”

She clenched her jaw, “I can’t allow this, Arthur. I can’t be weak like this. Lucas–“

“’Isn’t weakness to love, Angela,” he corrected firmly. “S’Our greatest strength. May be a weakness to fail to recognize love as strength, accept it as one, but that’s not loving that’s weakness. Some times, the hardest lessons are those that make us strongest.”

Her eye twitched, “And this one? What is it?”

“That no matter what, sometimes your love will wound you.” Arthur eyed her deeply, “You hurt because you love. You love because you hurt. You become stronger for it, every day. That makes you Human, not weak. That is strength.

“Sooner you learn to accept your nature, sooner you can use it to your advantage.”

Angela’s gaze held his a moment, searching for any trickery buried beneath his words. She found only conviction. She stared forward, wearing a soldier’s thousand-yard-stare. Arthur was right. More often than not, that was the case anyhow, why would this be any different?

More than that though, she felt his rightness.

Love let Lucas into her house, her car. Love, her ability to show and reciprocate it, let Crystal in; told the truth of Julia’s death. Love saved her, let her into Angela’s house. She’d never have bound to Julia were it not for love. Love, too, plunged her into Julia’s depths. Even the depraved street-living would never have come about if she weren’t so deeply loving.

Forever wounded by the lack of love her family offered, she sought it elsewhere. Eentually, she found her way toward it, if not to it.

To say childhood was at the root of many of her problems was like blaming a foundation for a swamp-house’s slant. It was short-sighted, didn’t fully explain how deep the problem went, and was far too simple for such complex a reality.

Yet Angela knew that love given freely to simply be reflected it back was necessary for a healthy life. Her parents didn’t, had answered only with distrust and suspicion, thus wounding the giver. As common with children, that giver was wounded deeply for life. So much, she’d spend most of her life since trying to compensate. To give. To love. Regardless of circumstance.

Crystal was a prime example: Similarly in need of love, her very entry into Angela’s home and life might have destroyed them. It hadn’t though, and only due to Crystal’s own actions. Actions Lucas was equally capable of but unwilling to perform.

From the moment he’d been allowed in, directly or not, he’d been doing damage. He knew that now, didn’t care. She pushed herself up from the floor and opened the drawer for her tablet. Why, exactly, left her mind as the drawer opened, empty of its contents.

New panic flooded her. “Shit. Shit.”

She jerked open the other kitchen drawers in a frenzy of swearing movement.

Arthur pushed himself up, “What–“

She circled amid the mayhem, completely aware of the irony. “Fucking thief.” Arthur moved to stop her. “The card. For Curie’s John. He took the tablet. Now he’s got the card.”

It took Arthur a moment to untangle the knot of confusion she’d tied, but he kept her grounded, “Stop now. Think. He can’t have gone far. He doesn’t have enough money to leave town and he’s half-way into detox. He’ll be trying to score, which means small buyers.”

She stammered slightly, trying to slow herself, “Right. Right…. Uh. Titus. Titus will know.”

“I’ll call.”

“No, I will. Better to be honest and take responsibility… right?”

Arthur gave a slight bow of his head, agreeing.

Short Story: Fractured Nets

I don’t know what more can be said on the Paris Incident, but I know the Eur-Asiatic invasion was never avoidable. Sooner or later, all the Corps knew, the Great Wall would break and spill itself into the rest of the world.

Europe would always bear the brunt of it. Sooner or later, it was inevitable. There was nothing to do but steady on and hope. When the wave hit, we were either prepared enough to weather it, or prosperous enough to rebuild.

The Web 2.0 crash changed that.

What didn’t it do, really? It gave Corps more power; gave people something new to get high on; gave the builders exactly what they wanted. Most of all, people got a new reason to keep slogging through the daily grind of human existence. If only for a while.

The net-fracture was the unexpected treat helping to further cement our complacency. It kept us that much further from, as a whole, exploding into all out anarchy. The after-image showed what was really possible; what was really going on.

We couldn’t have known the extent of things then. The rebellion wasn’t public yet. There was no resistance to speak of. To us, its leaders were still pissants from a new generation of tech-heads and nerds stretching back before Lord Gates and his Microsoft billions. It was there progress had originated, had rooted through and mined all the veins it could.

Why re-tread ground in some other, only-vaguely dissimilar way, hoping for more greatness?

We, the public, were thinking of rocks when we should’ve been thinking about diamonds– the next overabundant, meaningless resource we could place arbitrary value on.

That concept was simply beyond most people though. The rest didn’t care to think on it. The true Human weakness, as a species, is its inability to recognize irony. Irony which dictates our immense capability for emotion yet forces us to live so stubbornly in one state. Humanity, that is. That same irony forces us to identify so wholly with those emotions, we refuse even the possibility of upsetting them.

Sad.

And pathetic.

If we’d paid attention even half-a-second longer than normal, we’d have seen reality crashing down on us. It didn’t require clairvoyance or precognition. Just attention. It was the same thing that had been happening. It was another merger, another monopoly, but of a context we didn’t recognize for little more than a merger then.

Web 2.0 buckled beneath the weight of its own propaganda. It was no longer a people’s gathering ground. It was a bloated creature of pus and bile cleverly disguised with warm themes and cunning language. It had many jobs, but all of them cutting; it was a masochist’s playground.

What took its place was a former dark-net, the former dark-net. The Darknet itself was merely a moniker, a name for the conglomerate of hackers and wannabes running tech gear with masking programs and no data-loggers. What no-one realized was how much more power they got when the nets fractured.

People wanting to, and working against the system, found a way to do just that. The corporations had inadvertently dug their own graves. Everyone knew it eventually, saw it for what it was, but it took time to figure out. Even longer to force the dying corps into the ground.

In simplest terms, the internet fractured from one, interconnected and ubiquitous system, to several whose interconnection was often one-way. That is to say, the light-net was accessible via the Dark-net, but not the other way ’round. The purpose was two-fold: The nature of the Darknet’s inherent security required safe-guards that barred all but the most complicated external access; while the corps wanted to ensure no-one from the light-net– or inside, got out.

The corps attempted to create digital moats around fortress-cities, more or less succeeding until Darknet users fired back through cracks in the system. The sparse revelations of the light-net’s flaws eventually led the Resistance to take hold, using such attacks only when it was most beneficial. They were sparse until the light-net responded with quietly-tightened security. By then, only the most die-hard loyalists and their confused kin, bothered using it.

The Corps’ biggest mistake will forever be stagnating, never evolving. That seems obvious in retrospect, but it wasn’t then. People didn’t see the true force of creation Corps inevitably were. Of that, they most certainly were a creation of Humanity, by any empirical standards, and represented a new entity for the cosmic field-guide.

They weren’t quite alive, but they existed. They were particularly cunning, if only by way of hive intelligence. They could defend themselves through guard-dog lawyers and corp-sec ops. Most of all, they needed sustenance to survive. For a corp, that was money.

Corps could not survive without money. They lived and consumed,able to starve to death, one lay off after another,if not careful.The corps never did learn that.

At least, not until it was far too late.

No CEO or Board of Directors saw the truth for what it was; in the eyes of the machine, no-one was meant to be immune. Execs may not have been as susceptible to predation as most of the machine’s prey, but their money could feed the beast too. The way it was meant to be– between the beast or their money, was that the beast was allowed to win or it was game-over for everyone.

That is what the Corps never learned.

So, they fell to ruin in the shambles of their own stubbornness. Board-room warriors without any, real battle-prowess had been inbred for generations. Their ilk were now men whom grew fat off luxury even when besieged. Etiquette and protocol were ignorantly bred into those unsuited for their inherited stations. Dimwits became indistinguishable from honorable workhorses, until everyone ended up covered in shit from the fan.

And all the while, smiting their underlings; tightening fists to squeeze unneeded pennies from stone, lest it fatten a competitor’s bottom-line instead. It wasn’t done so brazenly of course, but what is?It was done “for efficiency,” “freedom.”

Corporate cards became conveyors of private, digital bit-currency run by the issuing corp, and useless elsewhere. Everything was handled by their software, and on their servers. A corp no longer gave a paycheck, it totaled your life’s exchanges digitally, deciding if you were in the red or black based on various work and purchase statistics.

Then the crash came, and the nets fractured.

As prepared as we could be, the first bits of wall and water rained down almost imperceptibly. Then, the Great Wall broke. The markets and nets flooded with people clamoring for pieces. New corps, new private-companies, subsidiaries, and assets.

In time of course, the Corps simply bought everything up, called it diversifying, and settled back into the groove with the board more cluttered with their assets than before..

Until then however, the fracture was doing something much more subtle and profound; it was funneling value into a universal currency. One only growing by the moment. That, by virtue of the technology backing it, was completely untraceable. It didn’t need to be. The currency was good anywhere and could be traded for anything. The issuer and purchase system were completely moot.

What mattered was money coming and going, somehow. That it came and went, and something was exchanged for it. That currency infected the world like a computer virus downloaded and opened a billion times a day, and spreading its influence with each iteration.

The Web 2.0 crash, in its roundabout way, was the closest thing to a miracle in the modern, digital day that could exist. It was completely prompted, expected, even programmed for. Yet the forces of mutation existing through-out the universe brought upon an anomaly that more or less solved– thus-far– an eternal problem; money. Mostly, backing its value.

How? Data.

What better than data? Data was the byproduct of all things. From the smallest subatomic particle to the universe itself, everything either is data or generates it by existing because it is record-able as data. The universe is composed of such preposterous amounts of information it can never be fully obtained. It can neither lose nor accrue value, because it simply is. Data is a constant. It is a single, fertile, and ever-replenishing thing by virtue of its nature.

Its size, so immense, can never be fully envisioned. It is the horizon of our observable universe and still more. Infinitely more. Information is everything. Our linking to that information, in form, matters not; only that we link. So why not make the information’s divisions, its pieces or bits, the backing of currency?

The idea mattered more than anyone could’ve anticipated.

Bit-currency was more than just a new dollar. It was something bigger. Something universal. Stable. It could be poked and prodded– mined– whenever needed. Something that let us do our thing, shut out the bullshit long enough to make sense of what was really happening, still come away with the bills paid. We didn’t need governments or Corps fighting over whether or not they’d take our hard-earned money because one person’s dollar meant less than another’s.

And just like that, creds were out and bits were in.

The Web 2.0 Crash left us entirely outside expectations. It was the anomaly in the system. The new-age Big-Bang. The final bit of pressure that cracked a nut. It opened our eyes to our ability to collectively will a problem’s solution into place. Let’s not worry about money anymore. Let’s just know it’s there when we need it, and can earn it if we’re willing.

Bit currency did just that whether you were a thief, an architect, a corp-exec, or a wage-slave. Bits simplified everything.

And all that time, the masses were figuring that out; counter-cultured, shadow-dwelling, Resistance leaders were lining their pockets with it. For years, they’d hoarded stockpiles of information. Even when no-one else was looking, and were still thinking about e-creds and dollars and yen, they’d been hoarding and squirreling it away.

The world willed it, but they made it happen; the black-markets, the shadow people, the hackers and wannabes and forward thinkers. And they all made off with that money-trailing after them, cackling like mad as we gawked, utterly destitute and morally bankrupt from the turbulence in the former money-system.

One that, like that version of us, no longer existed.

More than anything, the power of the net’s fracture told more than we realized; that it had always been there, the fault-line. We were always warned and told to be aware of our actions, and the workings beneath us. Yet we weren’t. The fracture was the result. It’s a shame it took so much bad to develop such good, but at the very least, it’ll never happen again….

Probably.

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.

Poetry-Thing Thursday: An Ocean of Time

The wolf paces in its cage,
awaiting an uncertain certainty;
an end will come.
Change has begun.
But whether his jailer,
shall be his executioner,
is a question only time may answer.

Alone in a dark and empty room,
sits a clown in full dress.
His white face is painted,
running black and red from tears.
For time has come and gone,
And still it carries on,
with it life goes,
for good or for ill.

Cuffed and shackled,
she hangs from the wall.
Dead eyes staring,
in testimony to a decayed soul.
And though she yet breathes,
her master will one day,
ensure she withers, bleeds.

Amid an ocean of time,
sails a ship of all existence.
Universes of countless beings,
multiplied by infinity.
And each one a story.
Each one a saga,
an epic.
Each one an odyssey.
And all of them
cohabit this place and time.

In the end,
an ocean of time,
is only the water,
upon which,
existence has sailed.

And we are it,
they.
However short or long,
our place on its line.
we occupy it,
together.

Hard Lessons: Pt 4

4.

Details, Baby. Details.

Titus eased into a booth before Crystal, clearly out of his element. The diner was in one of the dingier parts of town. The pair might’ve stuck out were Crystal not so frequent a sight of the place. Its retro 50’s style was long embedded in her heart, and despite the grime and muck– or perhaps because of it, the place felt like home.

Besides, even in her darkest hour they’d never thrown her out. So long as she could scrape enough change for a cup of coffee a day, and she didn’t disturb anyone, she could stay in, keep warm. Were it not for that, and a single conversation, Crystal’s life would consist of scraping muck for sustenance…

If she lived at all.

Nowadays, she met contacts here for that reason. She was giving back more than enough, infinitely more than what they’d given because they deserved it for giving at all. In the process, she ensured no-one there breathed a word of ill against her, no matter the circumstance.

It allowed her and and Titus to discuss details in the vague way so-called criminals do, publicly.

“That’s our stake.”

He slid an SD card over with a sleight of hand, lifted his coffee to drink.

She slotted it in a tablet, HUD in public-mode as she twiddled her thumbs and waited to fit in. For all anyone knew, she was checking emails. Titus’ tone encrypted his meaning; they might’ve been planning a party for an old friend.

In a way, they were.

Crystal contained a smile to continue the bluff, let the tablet rest as if reading. She focused on the foreground of her HUD, strings of data here and there, informatics, readings. Then, a series of photos filled her vision:

An empty, rundown street. Industrial. Corroded. Seaside across town. The place was newer, considerably smaller than usual. The prominent target, a former fish-packing plant.

She knew the locale; knew every warehouse there had been out of use a decade or so by all but occasional dealers. It was also near the water, which meant dingy, shit-smelling lofts and salt-corroded steel to scope the place.

She loathed jobs like this, but they paid right. She especially hated inevitably ending up smelling like fish days afterward– or any of the other industrial gifts left in Jackstaff’s many former-quays and fisheries.

At least she and Titus would suffer equally. He was far too refined to enjoy the place, but even he knew a job was a job.

She sighed, mentally sifting images to get a lay of the land; streets, loading docks, alleys. All empty. Their lengthened neglect was evidenced in trash and debris caught in their narrow wind-tunnels. Only living photographs might capture their entrapped eternities. Ever-spinning. Never-moving.

The tragedy was repeated on and through the whole, claustrophobic area via the light of a Hong Kong ghetto; low-lit with aged incandescence and the sheen of near-constant wetness oozing from the sea-air, rain or shine.

Altogether, an average, industrial image of a coastal fishing city sans one thing; people.

The target was different. Lit differently, more fluorescent. The bulbs were newer, conforming to codes or else looking right only at specific distances.

The differences were subtle, meant to be missed as pieces, but obvious and numerous otherwise. After seeing it that way, the building looked out of place; an art decco server-farm in northern wilderness. Stylistically fitting, but thematically off.

“Hidden,” Crystal said absently.

“Mmm,” Titus replied, sipping coffee. His tongue wished to recoil, but he held it firm. “Old friend’s place. Goes by once a month.”

She pushed and arranged images with her eyes to better fill the area’s blue-print. The tech caught on, instantly rearranged the photos properly.

“Storage?” Crystal mused.

“Near as I can tell.”

She played a vid; high angle images of a middle-aged man with olive skin in rain. Drone footage, Crystal guessed. Titus was good with tech; always knew the hottest gear. Usually, its designers too.

The mark emerged left-of-frame, crossed wet grounds. A tailored two-piece betrayed obvious wealth, putting him supremely out of place despite the emptiness.

“Done your homework,” Crystal said.

Titus let out a laugh.

The olive-skinned man approached a side-door. The tens tightened into two-second increments. Stills embedded in the film at each zoom. This stop-motion way allowed Crystal to observed the man approach a seemingly random section of warehouse wall and turn to face it. Frame-by-frame, flew at insane speed into filmstrips of stills faster than normal vid.

The man pressed a hand at a section of the warehouse’s sheet-metal wall. The narrow alley suddenly glowed with growing light. Nearby street sank, slid away, just wide enough for a small staircase. The man entered. It slid shut again.

“Feels familiar,” Crystal admitted, thinking of Angela’s garage.

“Same designer.”

“Friend of yours.”

He gave a casual nod, continued, “Problem’s the lock. Like your bike. Hand. Eye.”

She winced: biometrics were notoriously difficult to crack. Most common among wealthier, less-legally inclined folks and paranoid governments, there still weren’t many bypass measures. Some needed retinal scans. DNA. Voice-print. In any and every order. Usually with secondaries, key-codes, passphrases, print-scanners.

Cracking a biometric was a job in itself.

Most could be bypassed with enough, proper interaction with the mark; high-res 3D HUD scan converted to bypass a retinal scanner; conversation mined by aural implants for vocal phonemes; even prints or DNA lifted or taken with minimal interaction and proper tech.

Combining any of a number of them raised the difficulty almost exponentially. The trick was shadowing the mark long enough to get all of ’em at-once. Best way to do that, was a long con, or a slick hit.

Every thief worth their coin knew the best security was obscurity. Once that was gone, it was just a matter of time-vs-loot.

Most too, knew cracking a single biometric was generally key to a job. Most of its effort simply went into grabbing the key-sample to generate bypass from. Titus would’ve known that too. Unless he had something up his sleeve, Titus wasn’t the type to be unprepared.

He was too deliberate. The act of a job would be as much a message as the job itself for an… old friend. She guessed too, that was another reason he’d taken her along on it, to minimize chance that anyone else but the effected parties knew.

Her brows pivoted. She minimized her HUD to meet his gaze, “Rushing play? Risky.”

“Still in?”

“Still worth it?”

A smile gleamed over his sour coffee at the prod. She trusted him, that was what mattered. “Always.”

“Then, details, baby. Details.”

She slid the tablet away, simultaneously minimizing the remains of HUD to the unobstructed world. Business fell away to breakfast. The waitress approached, set down two, steaming plates. Titus took careful bites to test the food as he should’ve the coffee.

He ate with careful regard, “Dale show up last night?” Crystal chewed slowly. “Had ‘im pegged the moment he came in.”

He didn’t say, because I own the place.

She tossed back juice, waiting.

“You like ‘im?”

“No,” she said with a calm, firm-edge. “And I don’t expect to.”

“Wouldn’t think so.”

She raised a brow, “You know ‘im?”

“My job, Cee,” he slanged. His next words were exquisite, practiced eloquence. “Partnerships require contingencies.”

Crystal understood. More and more, Titus was a creature of mystery. It was the perplexing way of humanity. Something she’d missed over the years of isolation required by street-living, seemingly so simple outside, yet harboring such complexity.

She smiled, “And our contingency?”

“Depends on our partnership.”

Crystal flushed; she wasn’t sure why. Something in Titus’ tone. She hid a crooked smile and began to eat.

Breakfast passed in causal fashion, ended in a parting amid a cold, rising rain. Titus’ Turbo S shimmered morning-gray along royal violet in millions of beaded droplets collected across its planes and surfaces.

He chided Crystal with an offer for a ride. She fitted her helmet and zipped her leathers in reply. Isolated and half-smirking, she mounted and positioned the bike, then fired its engine. Only after masked and zooming away did she laugh.

The bike was designed and calibrated to her body. Everything from the tires to the gear-ratios to its shape were tuned to a profile she’d created and helped install. The bike was nothing but an extension of her.

Titus knew that; his contact had built it. Her ballistic woven coat and pants could mid-caliber bullets, negating even pelting rains at high-speeds. He knew that too…

Meaning there was more than just joke in the offer. Just as with the job. She couldn’t deny the curiosity growing within her.

Titus knew many people, why her? Why this job? Mixing business and pleasure? He was capable of it, certainly, and obviously found pleasure in her company beyond normal, professional capacities. Otherwise, he’d never have thought of her when the job came up.

But did it go beyond that?

Only time would tell, but the thrill was enough. She hadn’t been chased in a decade, let alone by anyone like Titus, ever. The obvious compliments put her in a mood good enough to be angry once it soured.

Back home, it did just that.

Lucas sat at the island, drunk, hoping to repeat the previous night at ten AM. He was alone. Angela was gone, prepping for Curie’s assignment. Lucas had sunken into the slump-shouldered hunch of the never-sober, professional gambler hoarding poor cards. The backless stool accompanied the shaggy dog glaze in his eyes. His breath sounded over small roll of grease creeping off him and onto his surroundings.

Judging by the sudden gleam Crystal received, he was near-to prowling too. Crystal readied herself as a cat arching to hiss. Two predators had met, would fight. One would lose, even if it was too stupid to realize it yet.

“Where is she?”

“Angie?” Crystal said nothing. “Gone. Dunno where. Didn’t ask.” He managed to stand without swaying, sauntered over with a grease-slick’s attempt at coolness. The still-oblivious predator moved to strike. “But uh, I got time, if you like.”

Crystal leaned in at him, a corner of her mouth cocked in a half-smile. She locked eyes with him, tempted him into fully revealing his intentions. He did, wet his lips with a flick of his tongue. She made it obvious she knew exactly what he wanted, and knew he knew it.

Then a quiet whisper, “Not even in your wildest dreams.”

He staggered back, eyes flashing shame, panic, anger. She’d already stepped past. Somewhere inside him he recognized what happened. He spun on heel to challenger her.

“Told Angie you liked cunt.”

Crystal didn’t bother looking back. “I don’t like you, do I?”

She slipped through the hall, into her room, leaving Lucas to fume.

Were he not alone, he’d have shattered the beer bottle on a wall. Instead he snarled, slugged back the rest, and slank toward the fridge.