Short Story: Ritual for the Bereaved

She had skin like an ebony goddess with a face painstakingly carved from stone by masters’ hands. Sweat gleamed off her as if she’d been coated in lacquer, fired in a kiln. Beads of water formed streams, forced downward by gravity to mix with sweat. Her wiry hair was wild; stray strands cascaded down her face, jutted out from her bun-ponytail, and framed her prominent cheek bones.

She began at an edge of the black-mats in the wooden room. In her hands, thinly-curved steel of two katanas readied in a down-angled point at the floor. Her head hung, chin against chest, as her mind sank entered a placid trance. Her muscled thighs parted just enough to give her legs their due gait. Then, with a breath, she sprinted forward a pair of steps.

Her feet and calves worked in a spring. The blades remained motionless as she flipped forward, landed. Steel rose in double, whipped through the air with audible swipes, made inward slices. She spun on a single foot, a ballerina in a fouetté turn. The blades followed, parted to swipe one high and one low. Her body compelled them to follow through.

With a backward flip-kick, her wrists rotated, whirled the blades around. She landed, jammed them backward to penetrate phantom foes. The swords pulled free from the phantoms, fused with a wide sweep that saw them righted in her hands. She saw the swipes catch the throats of five armed men around and in front of her. Had they been there, she would have been deathly right.

Her powerful legs made a deep lunge, right hand thrust a blade forward, inward. The toes of her left foot dragged forward as she straightened, put her fists knuckle-to-knuckle. The mirrored steel shined from the large’s rooms LEDs, reflected half and quarter views of its innards. The reflections became blurs; the blades dropped, began to spin, whirl, twirl, while her body made small pirouettes and leaps.

She did a final, backward stab, eyes shut, then pulled the blades forward, flattened her arms outward. Her wrists angled to keep the blades flush with the t-pose, extend the breadth of her reach. Together, steel and skin sank back to her sides. The swords returned to their down-angled point, her chin once more against her chest as it heaved from exertion.

A door opened behind her, a scent like smoldering wood coals wafted over. A smile crept across her mouth. She turned on-heel, eyes open and head leveled. Before her stood a tall, equally dark skinned man. The white and gray that peppered his beard matched aged-eyes wrinkled at the corners. A large scar ran down the right side of his face, through his eyebrow and a piece of his upper lip, and made his smile unique, peculiar.

“Jazmin,” he said gruffly as he crossed the room.

She met him half-way, “Dad.”

“Am I interrupting, sweetheart?” He asked respectfully.

She shook her head, led him toward a corner to sheath her swords. She patted a towel at her neck with one hand, used the other to ready a water-bottle to drink, “What’s the what?”

He smiled, her lingo ever foreign. Such was the way of generational gaps between fathers and daughters. He knew the meaning of this particular phrase, sensed she was all business today.

He responded in kind, “Your assignment just came down from the top.”

She gulped a squirt from the bottle, panted, “Since when’s Dahl been giving you my orders?”

“Since the assignment concerns an old acquaintance,” her father replied seriously.

Her neck stiffened, eyes widened to match his, “You can’t mean–”

He interrupted gravely, “I do.”

Their eyes met with a hardened narrowness. Somewhere beneath her confidence and determination, Jazmin’s core was shaken. To hear such words meant any hope for peace was gone.

She spoke with a stiff spine, “When do we leave?”

“Now. There’s a van waiting.”

A quarter of an hour passed before Jazmin pushed her way from the gym and into the night. The Zen garden beside and behind the gym gurgled with a hand-made waterfall at the edge of its Koi pond. Japanese Maples in cement and paver-stone planters cast her in sparse shadows beneath the palette of copious neon signs and incandescent poles lighting the streets. She followed the cobble stone path along the garden’s outer-wall, found her father waiting before the an open side of a black van.

She gave him a look as if yet unprepared. He sympathized, “You know, I can talk to Rachel. She and I are old friends. If she–”

“No,” Jazmin said definitively. “I trust her judgment. If she believes I can do this, then she knows I should.”

He gave a small nod. She tossed her duffle bag inside, gripped the vans roof with a hand to launch herself inside. He sighed, climbed in behind her.

It took almost two days to travel from Hong Kong to the remote region where they would find their mark. The Nepalese scenery of verdant, earthen hues and white-capped mountains would have been a jarring shift from Earth’s densest, rain-laced city were it not so gradual. Jazmin found herself enamored, but her joy was always quickly suppressed by the assignment at hand.

They reached the mark’s hideaway; a small temple on the precipice of a mountain where snow fell eternally in screaming winds. Her father led the way inside. Two pairs of blades readied, one after the other, and slipped through the temple’s double doors.

The woman was in her late forties, clearly honed from a life of agile aspirations and training. There was no incitement to violence– it was already clear in her eyes. Something said she expected the two assassins as more than a mark could. A clear spite was beneath the expectation: she’d been the one exiled, cast out for daring to challenge Dahl. In place of death, she was told to flee from beneath the sword at her throat and never return. The spark of hatred in her eyes then had since grown to a raging, animistic fire. Twenty years of planned revenge and festering rage still fueled it.

Her own blades were out. Jazmin and her father were ready. One of each of their blades blocked the woman’s. The free blades sank through her fleshy torso beside one another. Her eyes went wide. Blood trickled from a corner of her mouth. Jazmin and her father pulled back together. The woman shriveled to the floor. The thirsty, aged planks beneath her lapped up blood that spilled down her sides. She gasped on the floor, eyes distant and glazed.

“Jazmin,” she whispered.

The girl knelt beside her to listen carefully. Her dying breaths were on her, all of them knew it.

She wheezed a wet breath, “T-take my swords. T-they ar-are yours n-now.” Jazmin gave a singular nod with a blink. The woman raised a bloody hand to caress Jazmin’s cheek, “You’re so beautiful.” Eyes began to tear up. “I-I’m s-sorry I couldn’t be there to see you grow.”

Jazmin took her hand, “Shh. It’s okay. I understand.”

At that Jazmin was sincere, she understood the woman’s absence, the rationale for her exile, even the anger that had prompted the attack that led to it. More importantly, Jazmin understood why there was no epic fight; simply, it was easier for all if her death was quick, in defense of themselves.

She squeezed Jazmin’s hand, “N-never f-forget that I l-love you, sweetheart.”

Jazmin suppressed her own tears, “I love you too, mom.”

The life left her mother’s eyes and her body went limp. There was no one to blame; not her adulterous father whom caused the challenge to Dahl, nor herself that put the blade to her, not even the exile whom sought revenge, consigned herself to her fate by declaring all out war on the Order. She would have never hurt her family, but even Dahl knew she couldn’t allow anyone else to take the assignment, put down her would-be assassin.

Jazmin collected her mother’s blades and sheathes, slung them over her back, then lifted her for a pyre she and her father had already built. Absent or not, respect was due, and if there was anything the Order knew, it was the importance of rituals for the bereaved– no matter whom put the blade to the mark or why.

Bonus Short Story: The God Damned Human Element

A deep subwoofer thumped a beat that rattled the crowd’s teeth. It made them all but deaf to the world around them. Combined with the pulsing lights and erratic muscle spasms most called dancing, it wasn’t difficult to understand why sharks and adrenaline junkies sought the type of places like this. The entire crowd undulated with a hypnotic, sexual rhythm, as though some lustful creature in a different universe altogether. The X and coke didn’t hurt the xenoic aspirations either. It was as much a given that spaced-out face-fucking was taking place as it was that someone would wake up regretting it the next morning.

In the middle of it all was Hailey Russell, part-time drug-dealer, full-time club owner. She’d been one of the first to carve herself a place from the Awakening’s rubble. Once a Sleeper, she’d run net-casinos through countless shifting proxies. They racked up all forms into online chips and credits from poker tourneys to slot machines. If it weren’t for the damned Awakening, Hailey would still be one of the richest people in the world– or at least Tokyo.

Instead, she was middle of the food-chain. Those that had brought about the Awakening, a nameless group of vigilantes with more swords and balls than brains, were undoubtedly at the top. Even fewer people realized that than knew of their existence, but it remained true all the same. They’d set themselves up right before the fall of civilization, and their elimination of the so-called Collective; a group who’d supposedly run the world.

To Hailey, it was a bullshit line from bullshit liars.

Like most Awakened ex-pats, she knew the world outside ran differently than the one inside. That knowledge alone had given her the club, the connections, even her take-no-shit attitude. The net though, had been a godsend. People like her didn’t fit into “normal society.” They made their own rules, were ruthless in pursuit of credits. After the Awakening, the flux-state forced upon the world had there wasn’t a society so much as tribal cliques. With most cliques’ home’s– the net– gone, society was forced remold itself– was still doing so.

So Hailey and others like her did what they did best; set up shop, and catered to clientele looking for whatever they could provide. In most cases, the best sellers were escapes from reality. In Tokyo especially, it was drugs and sex. The city was rampant with destitution, and most people in the club owned only one set of clothes more than they were wearing, and were certain to lose half their wardrobe over the night. Hailey’s job was to ensure that happened and she was damned good at it.

She leaned over a cat-walk railing on the club’s second floor. Somewhere to her left, one of the girls whoring for money was just barely audible over the thumping bass. She’d been fucking her brains out for near-on three hours. Everyone in the VIP section had taken her for a ride, one right after the other. Hailey wasn’t any different– or at least, wouldn’t have been given she were lower on the food chain. Money was power, and selling her body was the easiest dollar a girl’d make nowadays.

Hailey’s eyes scanned the crowd that ground and writhed against one another. Peaking X so prevalent it tainted the sweaty air. Ushers passed out free bottles of water as they palmed cred-chips in exchange for X-tabs, nitrous-poppers, and eight-balls. A few men and women looked ready to spaz out completely. A few more straight-edged wall-flowers huddled in shadows, probably drug in by their girlfriends or boyfriends looking for a fix. No doubt the poor shits would be single again in the morning, or swapping spit from mouths that had been sucking strange cocks or tonguing foreign muff– maybe both.

Hailey smiled at the thought; it was pure anarchy. There was no room for the “human element.” At least not the one that people thought of usually. Instead it was the reptilian brain that lusted for every known drug, synthetic or otherwise, that allowed for greater pleasure. She hated the other human element– the touchy-feely bullshit about honor and love and school-girls that weren’t being actively sodomized. That bullshit had cost her the net, and more money and power than most dreamed of. Everything she owned now was physical, credits a worthless means to an end. Money was a middle man between her and the things she’d use to rebuild her power’s foundation. Whether formed of X-tabs, sound systems, synth-ahol, or old-fashioned whores, she wasn’t going to let even the smallest iota of power slip past.

She turned from the anarchy of the dance-floor and the VIP-whore’s latest orgasm, for her sound-proofed office. It sat along the club’s rear-wall, shades drawn closed on a window that watched lines of minors with fake-ids.

The office was a quiet refuge in a haven of chaos. Only the lowest thumps made any ingress, barely audible as her heels clicked for the seat behind her desk. She snorted a line off a sterling-silver tray. Her heart skipped beats from the rush while her groin tingled. She loose a heavy sigh, laid her head back against the chair-back, and entertained the idea of heading down stairs to pick up one of the wallflowers and popping their cherry.

She resolved to think on it, opened her eyes to a small movement ahead. Her reflexes snapped her upright. The scarred face of a man she knew and loathed appeared.Yang-Lee’s dual katanas were sheathed, a better sign than his presence alone. Unlike her, he was a Tokyo native, one of the few directly responsible for the Awakening. Apart from being one of the nameless order, he was also a cut-throat bastard with delusions of authority. Everything from his rigid spine to the slight stretch of his scarred face said he held himself above Hailey and her club.

She blinked hard to keep the coke at bay, “The fuck d’you want, Lee?”

His jaw was tighter than usual, not a good sign. “Rachel told you to close up shop, Hailey.”

Hailey cocked a smug grin, “Dahl can slurp on my cunt if she thinks she’s gonna’ take anymore of my money.” She fingered a button on the arm of her chair, “And you can tell her I said that yourself.”

Two large men appeared behind Yang-Lee, wider than brick shit-houses and thick as steel. One of them put a hand to Yang’s shoulder.

He cocked his head slightly to one side, “If you wish to retain use of that hand, I would remove it. Now.” Hailey’s eye twitched. She gave a nod and the man backed off. “Wise.”

Hailey’s eyes sharped with ice, “If Dahl wants a war, I’m more than willing to commit to it. Otherwise, fuck off and don’t come back.”

Yang-Lee remained in place, his posture unaffected, “A war suits no-one’s agenda.”

“Says a coward that know’s he’ll lose,” Hailey said. She pushed up from her chair, crossed the room to lean in on him at nose-length, “If you thought the Yakuza’s remnants were hard, you’re not even prepared for me.”

A lone corner of a scarred eye tightened, “You do recall, Hailey, the Yakuza no longer exist because we will it so.” A corner of her mouth lifted in a snarl. “We lost not a single man in that war. Think. Accept that you only remain here because we do not will it otherwise. Do not give us reason to feel differently.”

She grit her teeth, “Get. The fuck. Out of my club.”

Yang-Lee didn’t flinch. There was a flash of hands and steel. Hailey stumbled back, fell to her ass, back against her desk. Her vision focused in time to see Lee’s dual Katanas withdraw from her dead guards. He rounded, approached her with shadowy features. He put the bloody tip of a blade beneath her chin, lifted it gently.

His voice was calm, quiet, “There is no need for war when our only conflict is with you. We will simply eliminate the problem. Consider this your final warning; stop poisoning our city, or we will ensure your end is swifter than theirs.”

Yang-Lee stepped away, blades whirling. They threw droplets of blood across the room, returned to their sheathes. The door opened to the momentary sounds of sex-driven rhythms then went quiet again. Hailey heaved a terrified breath. She’d have pissed herself were it not for the thousand-cred pants she wore. She pulled herself up along the desk’s edge with shaky hands.

The god damned human element had won out again. It always did in the end; fight or flight, terror and fear– the manifestations of that stupid reptilian brain she so heavily relied on. She hated the fucking thing, both her greatest asset and worst enemy. She stamped a foot against the floor with a loud “fuck” that cresendoed into a growl. The god damned human element always won.

The Collective: Part 4


Sibling Rivalry

The GSS team breached Rachel Dahl’s apartment with the same master code Lex had used. Late afternoon sun now shone through the hall’s window. With the GSS squad was Calista Dahl, whom entered and ordered the men to fan out, search for her sister. Contrary to her way, Rachel had missed work. With the deaths of Li and Kay still fresh, it was obvious something had happened to her. When she reached the coffee table, Lex’s recorded hologram engaged.

Lex’s hooded silhouette stood with Rachel before her, a blade out and poised against the woman’s belly to show Lex’s menace. The hooded figure began to speak, her voice garbled through encrypted filters to slow the GSS’ eventual analysis. It came through deep, as though she were half machine, half human, with emphasis on the masculine end of that spectrum.

“Calista Dahl; you stand accused of crimes against the people. Your sentence is death. Your only choice is to come quietly or watch your sister die with you. The terms are not negotiable. At the end of this message, an address will appear, come alone or she dies.”

Lex and Rachel fizzed out of focus, fell away in static to a few, stationary lines of text. The address was somewhere on the edge of Tokyo, just outside the city’s concentrated innards. Calista knew it well; the land was open, flat, with plenty of trees for cover. Distant buildings and their orientation made for poor placement of any long-range security details in all but a few spots, but she was certain the area had a maze of sewer lines that led into them. Her people could approach unnoticed, but the question remained of if she wanted to risk Rachel’s life. When faced with her own, certain death, her answer was emphatically yes.

Across Tokyo, Lex kicked open the door of an old, bamboo and grass shed. It had been designed to blend into the garden park. Once the home of a tender, his job, livelihood, and purpose had been stolen from him by the Sleep. He hanged himself in the center of the small, one-room hut, was only after days of baking in the hot sun made the stench so foul the park’s visitors took notice.

Lex was there when they cut him down. She’d been a devotee of the garden’s calming nature since before her incarceration. The old, half-blind and hunched grounds-keeper’s death was a proverbial cherry atop her frothing cream of hatred, spite. The Sleepers knew not what they did, weren’t to be faulted. Like all humans, they’d merely succumbed to their desires. Unfortunately, unlike most humans through history, they could be given no reprieve, nor even hope that they might lift themselves from the throes of addiction. It was, like most things nowadays, nearly impossible to wake the Sleepers without some sort apocalyptic event.

Lex drug Rachel to the shack by the binds around her wrists, tossed her inside and across it to kick the door shut. Rachel collided with the wall of rusted garden tools, hands out to save her face from being impaling by a claw-rake. She immediately rebounded with it in hand, swiped at Lex. Her arms were up. Lex pulled it forward with Rachel, whom stumbled to her knees. Lex’s fist collided with her face. She fell sideways in the dusty floor, bleeding from the lip and weeping. She sobbed, screamed, cursed. Lex replaced the rake, calmly pulled Rachel up.

“You’ll find attacking me is useless,” Lex warned. “I am faster, stronger, and smarter than you. Do as I say, and you’ll go free.”

“Liar!” Rachel shrieked with a raspy breath. “You’re crazy! You’re just gonna’ kill me anyhow!”

Lex pulled a chair from a corner of the room, scraped it against the dusty, cement floor, set it down with its back toward Rachel. She threw a leg around it to lean against the chair-back, look down on Rachel.

“If I wanted you dead, I’d have killed you when you opened the door to the bathroom,” she reminded. “Now, either quiet down and listen or I’ll gag you.” Rachel’s head hung sideways as she quieted, wet sniffles audible every few seconds. “Good girl. Now, there’s something we need to straighten out before we go any further– the notion that I am crazed.”

“You are,” Rachel argued with a tremor.

“No, no, no,” Lex said emphatically. “It’s important you understand that I am not, or else what’s happening won’t have proper context. This is like a composer in a world without music imagining notes, writing and playing them: in a world without music, the composer is a heretic, a loon, one that hears voices and sounds. In our world, he is a genius.”

Rachel angled a squiggled frown upward that punctuated her wet eyes, “Every nutcase thinks they’re a genius.”

Lex gave a long sigh with a shake of her head, “You’re missing the point.”

“I don’t need the context of a lunatic’s creation to know they’re insane,” Rachel spat. “You all have your stories, your reasons, and none of them change what you are.”

Lex watched her for a long moment as she leaned her chin against her forearms on the chair-back. The shack was quiet, tense. Rachel stared into Lex’s eyes, admittedly questioning her own judgment. There was something pained in them– somewhere beneath all the make-up, blood, and anger, a little girl wandered aimlessly for love, attention.

Rachel took a sharp breath, cast her eyes back on the floor. Lex nodded slowly to herself, “You know me– by reputation, if nothing else. I assume it was Calista, or your former position as head of the European Trade Union, that made you aware of me.” She took a breath, straightened in her seat, “Whatever it was, I know what you’ve done– what you did, anyhow. You went off the grid after you signed over your power– Europe’s power— to Viktor Steinsson and Ville Andersson– Swiss bankers extraordinaire.”

Rachel’s eyes rose again, more guilty than anything, “I did what I thought would protect the Union.”

Lex countered, “Or so you were led to believe.” She shook her head, “No, what you really did, and discovered for yourself soon enough afterward, was relinquish the only governmental control left to the Collective.”

“I didn’t—”

Lex was firm, loud, “You did!” Rachel’s throat squeaked from a sharp breath. Lex softened, quieted, “I don’t fault you for that. And in fact, provided you’re agreeable, you’ll be the only one of the Collective left alive when I am done. You are part of them in name only. I intend to coat my blade in the blood of the twelve, but I would rather see it be eleven if it means acquiring an asset. ”

Rachel was silent and still for a moment. Then, with a hard swallow, she met Lex’s eyes again, “Why?”

Lex rose from her seat to pull Rachel up, set her into it. She leaned against a table beside her, “Your sister’s crimes are irredeemable. To some, yours are too. But not to me. I know you were coerced, because I know your sister.”

She shook her head, “She’s not the monster you make her out to be.”

Lex leaned forward in a hunch, her arms crossed, “We both know she’ll sacrifice you for herself tonight without a moment’s hesitation.” Rachel’s eyes met the floor again, her hands twisted in the binds to tense against one another. Lex straightened, “You have a choice, Rachel. Maybe not much of one, but one nonetheless. Provided you choose appropriately, you will live. Either way, Calista will die tonight. There is no stopping that. It is inevitable. Imminent. Blood of kinship may mean something to you, but know it means nothing to her. If you look deep enough, you’ll see that truth.”

Missed part 3? Read it here!

The Collective: Part 3


State of the Union

Lex headed back to the alley she’d come from. There was no doubt one of the few monitor-lackeys left had seen the murder. Even if they hadn’t, the bodies draining of blood on the sidewalk would be found soon enough. She kept calm, chose to leave, not flee. She feared neither discovery, confrontation, nor death, but couldn’t allow any yet. She’d seen her blades coated in the Collective’s blood, each of them deserving of the most brutal tortures. They would receive mercy instead; swift death, a kindness they did not deserve, but that Lex had no objections in granting.

Before the Sleep, Lex had never touched a sword nor even manifested anger. She’d never spoken out of turn, really. The Sleep’s long, lulling effects had a way of turning even the most gentle of creatures into raging monsters though. For her, it began with a simple question to her parents; why they’d seemingly abandoned her.

They hadn’t, they said– they were always home, always available. In truth, they were locked in their V-R worlds, chasing super-models or humping stallions, or completing mindless, trivial tasks that kept their headsets and neural nets locked in cyberspace. Being a young, precocious child whom wanted to experience the world, Lex felt she had no choice. She wished to see her family laugh, love, be together again, not stagnate in vegetation.

When she finally lashed out, she was oblivious to a new set of laws enacted regarding the technology and tampering with it. From a technical stand-point, they made sense. The VR tech and neural interfaces were far too complex to allow those untrained to alter them. Anyone whom wished to do so with malice could easily configure the tech to surge, fry a person’s brain, or even inject viruses into the cyber-worlds visited through them. Perhaps if Lex had known that she would have done things differently, but being a teenager and more stubborn by the day, there were no alternatives to her mind.

The fateful night determined her life’s course, was always heavy in her mind. It manifested as her feet compelled her through the zig-zag maze of Tokyo’s once-infested alleyways and streets. Fresh rain splattered the sidewalks. She tromped through puddles, rippled their reflected neon pinks, oranges, and countless, LED screens that shined from walls or vacant doorways.

As any neglected teenager, Lex had been angry. She’d lusted for boys, girls, friendship, commitment, purpose but found none. When she wished and begged for aid, she was shut out for the suckle of virtual teats in the vain hope of even a single, lowly drop of Mother’s milk. It kept the chaos outside at bay, but couldn’t keep Lex from her rage. Her thick make-up ran constantly, like an aging glam-rocker on-stage too long and greased with sweat and water. Still, her parents remained in their worlds, content despite their daughter’s pleas. She was forced into action, spiteful of the addiction that had claimed them. They’d withered to mindless, masses of flesh, husks of their former selves.

She stole a fire-axe from the building she lived in, a remnant of the fire-department era. With it, she did the only thing could; yanked the V-R head sets off her parents, smashed them against the floor, then planted the axe into the rear of each chair where their power sources were. The shower of sparks from the last swing arced electricity off the axe-head, snaked up the metal handle and into Lex. She landed, half-fired and unconscious.

The damage didn’t fully reveal itself until she awoke in a hospital room, one of few places people still gathered at the time. Things had changed since the invention of auto-diagnostic software. Home diagnosis of every possible medical affliction was no possible through the VR setups. Coupled with subscription pill services, even a cancer patient never had to see a doctor. Everyone merely allowed their V-R machines to send out data to external servers. Medications were automatically prescribed, shipped in, and installed by specialized drones that entered people’s homes at will.

Full-service, free medical care was the future, and it took– just like every other vise that kept the Sleepers’ bound to their chairs, atrophied them with mental stimulation. Whether they believed it or not, Lex was fighting for them. Their awakening would happen, come hell or high-water. Her own awakening in the hospital however, ensured she would never be one of the Sleepers.

The blaring white of a sterile room infected her eyes with the stink of bleach. Combined with a morphine drip in her arm, the fumes forced nauseated waves through her. She tried to sit up, found her wrists and ankles chained to either side of her bed. With a wail, a round, sympathetic woman rushed in, tended to her.

When Lex inquired about her parents, the woman went quiet, hands atop one another at her waist. She looked ready to speak when the door opened on a woman in a black skirt and blouse. Black, square glasses framed cold eyes that recessed in her face with bags and lines of premature age. She adjusted them as she entered, flanked by two GSS officers with rifles in hand. The woman gestured the nurse out, prompted her to rush away, eyes hidden as the two men guarded the door.

The businesswoman stopped at the foot of the bed, ensured the malicious point to her features was visible, then spoke with an English accent, “I am Calista Dahl, legal representative for Global Entertainment. We received word today that two of our machines were hacked. Indeed, when our security forces arrived, they discovered they had been– hacked to pieces, by a foolish little girl with an axe.” Lex opened her mouth as if to speak. The woman was quicker, “Your parents are dead. Your little stunt killed them.” Lex’s face fell away. She began to sob over Dahl, “You would have died yourself if not for luck. You should have. But now you will stand–”

The cries irritated Dahl. She took a few steps forward, planted a lone, hard smack across Lex’s face, then forced her chin forward to meet her eyes. Lex went quiet, teeth grit against the grip.

“You are hereby accused of crimes against Global Entertainment and its properties, and separately, for the manslaughter of your parents. How do you plead?”

She released Lex’s mouth enough for her speak; Her eyes narrowed, jaw clenched. She spit in Dahl’s face, “Go. To. Hell.

The beatings and imprisonment Lex was subjected to afterward would have hardened anyone. Instead of becoming a psychopath or a complacent slave– either malleable enough to be put down– she refined her strengths, convictions, planned for her eventual escape or release. The prison cell she occupied alone was one of few still used. Her appeal was made automatically by algorithms that took into account every possible variable of her crime, conviction, and behavior, concluded she would no longer present a problem.

They were wrong. Autonomous systems were like that; able to account for every variable, judge and determine whatever they wanted, but in the end, they knew nothing of the “human element.” Respiration, brain-wave patterns, heart-rate, everything could be monitored, but it didn’t change a human’s intuition. Had anyone seen one of their species wronged, ready to respond as Lex was, they’d have never let her go. Doing so was a grievous mistake for the Collective. Had they recognized the importance of her inability to sleep, they might have saved themselves.

Instead, she left prison, found others whom refused to sleep. In time her plans were laid, and her training complete. She became a weapon of steel and flesh. Her sole motives to survive became eliminating her parents’ real killers– those whom planted the machines in their brains. She was going to avenge every single person who had lost something, everything even, to the Sleep. The why was simple enough. The how was a river of blood just beginning to flow.

She stepped up a curb in the rain with a light slap of a boot, pulled open a door to an apartment building. She already knew where to go; top floor, last apartment on the left. The GSS would have only just responded to the first attack, would require time to connect the messages left to the need of protecting the Collective. Any reality otherwise was just more blood for the river.

She emerged on the top floor. Chrome doors gleamed along the hall’s low-light, reflected multicolored iridescence of neon and LEDs from beyond a nearby window. Building-tops outside were punctuated by the cool, deep blues of touch-screen panels along the hall’s doors.

Lex was prepared, had memorized the GSS master-codes her people had pulled from their private servers. When she reached the last door on the left, there was nothing to stop her. It slid open on an apartment that, like every other dwelling in Tokyo, resembled her former home. The only differences were in the few, luxury items afforded by the wealthy owner.

Her feet were quiet, dry by the time she entered. A light glowed beneath the bathroom door, said her target was readying herself for bed– or perhaps work, as was the way with the sociopaths and sycophants that now ran the world. Whichever her target was, she wasn’t sure, but it couldn’t matter with what was to come to them.

The door slid open on the face Lex remembered from so long ago. The eyes were warmer now though, more youthful, vibrant. The expression of shock on the woman’s face said she knew who Lex was, but there was a cower to her cries. Lex grabbed her by the tied robe, threw her further into the main-room of the apartment. The robe fell open to expose her night-time nudity, unfurled on either side of her arms and legs. She slid backward for the door on her hands. Lex’s boot was quick, held her down with a heavy foot.

Lex’s blades sang as they slid from their sheathes, “Where is Calista?”

“M-my sister?” The woman choked with an English accent.

“Your twin,” she affirmed with a level tone.

“I-I don’t know,” Dahl stammered. “I s-s-swear. I h-haven’t known since she was promoted to head of Global Entertainment.”

“You’re lying,” Lex said, a blade rising to press her throat.

The woman cried, “I’m not. I swear. God, just leave me alone!”

Lex pressed the blade inward, forced their eyes to meet, “Rachel Dahl; where is your sister?”

She swallowed hard, eyes and voice wet with sincerity, “I don’t know– b-but I might be able to find out.”

The blade at Rachel’s throat went lateral, forced a flinch that trickled blood down her neck. With it, Lex’s head tilted, “How?”

She swallowed hard again, “Com-computer. Email. I c-can schedule a m-meet.”

Lex snarled. The blade twisted to a whimper, “I thought you didn’t know where she was.”

Rachel squeaked a cry, “I don’t! I swear. I just know how to c-contact her.”

Lex’s dilemma was clear in her eyes for a moment. The blades lowered into their resting position and her boot rose from Rachel’s chest, “Get up.”

The woman’s feet slipped and slid as she rose, hugged her robe closed, “Wh-what are you going to do to me?”

“You’re going to get dressed and come with me,” she instructed. “And if for even a second I believe you’ve contacted GSS, you’ll be cut into so many pieces they’ll never find all of you. Is that understood?” Rachel gave a single, timid nod. The katanas whirled, re-sheathed. “Good. Now play nice, and get dressed.”

She followed Dahl, watched her dress in what once had been called street-clothes; jeans, T-shirt, long leather coat, and battered running shoes. Lex pulled Rachel’s hood up, instructed her to keep her face hidden, then stepped for the living-room’s center. After a few moments, she dropped a small, personal recorder on the coffee table and escorted Rachel out.

Missed part 2? Read it here!