Short Story: Losers

Brad was a gas-station clerk; twenty, lean, and sickly-looking with circles so dark beneath his eyes he could make a raccoon blush. He’d spent his late teens in the gas-station by night, and the trend looked to continue through his twenties. To most, he was a loser. Sometimes he agreed. At least he was independent, self-sufficient, he’d say other times. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

A typical day saw him rise at noon. He went through his daily motions of coffee, showering, over the drone of scripted, daytime court shows. His dingy, one room apartment was on “the bad side” of town. Brad had learned since moving in, “bad-side” mostly meant, “unlike us” for those speaking of it, regardless of circumstances on either side. In his case, it meant poor.

Though there were a few of the truly undesirable around, the “government assist” housing surrounding his cut-rate apartment was simply filled with the “economically unfortunate.” Most called them disadvantaged, but Brad had always taken issue with this moniker, as if all those impoverished souls needed was to work a little harder and they too, could be Dukes and Dames of all they surveyed.

The truth, Brad knew, was much more difficult to accept: the “unfortunate” simply weren’t born into the wealthy elite or the middle classes above them, so they could never achieve what they’d supposedly been given a disadvantage at achieving. In other words, the “truth” was that the current social structure didn’t allow them to climb any higher without serious reformation. Brad had been born into middle-class living, but to escape the clutches of otherwise well-meaning parents, he took on the life of the impoverished. His own unwillingness to be anything else meant he’d all but cut ties with them after they’d tried to force him home for the sake of appearances. It might not have been much, he said, but it was his.

Like Brad, most of his neighbors ascribed to this method of thought. They were hard-working people that rose daily to slave for low-wages and no respect– and in the vain hope of one day lifting themselves from the muck.

The winters were the hardest for Brad and “his” people– the ones most would lump in as losers, whom like him, walked a straight and narrow just trying to get by. Most were laborers, single or child-bearing households with one wage earner. Often enough, those laborers received pink-slips en-masse when the weather turned to cold and the jobs froze with the ground. The influx often came with media-overblown sicknesses that frightened people into inoculating themselves and their children.

In truth, the monetary cost was greater than the risk, but none knew that. Meanwhile, those few claimed by true sicknesses were fraught by their afflictions’ medical costs. Between little work, rising medical costs, and the ever-creeping monster of inflation, it was a wonder to Brad that more people hadn’t recognized the slump into Third-World others had been forced along.

Brad was one of the lucky losers. Despite his sickly looks, and his emaciated build, he ate well enough to remain otherwise healthy. In combination with his hearty genetics, that had gifted him a robust immune system, it seemed no disease could overcome him. Physiologically speaking, he was an impregnable fortress of loop-hole turrets, regimental archers, and countless swordsmen. Were it not for these facts, perhaps the night the world caught up with him he would have died. Even so, he nearly did anyhow.

He rose as usual, coffee, hygiene, court-room dramas, and all. He made himself as presentable as any man unaware of such a monumental event to come could. Like those unlucky folks outside Ford’s Theater, he was merely ready to bustle onward through life, but was instead hit with a dose of reality that would’ve killed those losers of smaller luck.

He arrived at work as the walk-ins did in that season; layered in thick clothing, and with all but his eyes covered by a scarf, hat, and gloves. The only out of place item on him were the gym-shoes for hours of standing to come when others might have worn boots in the cold.

He hunched forward, hunkered into his coat and slinking toward the counter, as much at home there as in his dingy apartment. The two were similarly cramped, ugly, though the former bore considerably more color from the aisles of flashy products. In other words, had he an alley to himself, the gas station would’ve been right up it.

Like the most frigid of midweek nights, things were slow, tedious. Work had started just as the day’s last shift-change urged departing workers in and working departees out. The nine-PM rush quelled itself by ten with only the occasional hooting of night-owls or stoned-teenagers buying necessities to break the monotony. Cash and food stamps changed hands, debit and credit cards were swiped or shoved in to droning beeps, but that was it. Nothing unforgettable. These were the same, unfortunate souls that had lapsed into the haze of life; where day and night, weekday and weekend, had little meaning or distinction.

Brad sympathized most with this sect of “his” people. The all-nighters, graveyard shifters, and nocturnal creatures that prowled, patrolled, or otherwise maintained the night. And it was one of that group, most prone to prowling, that stepped up to the counter.

Brad greeted the man habitually as he stepped up to the counter. He seemed out of place, as if he fit into none of the groups Brad saw nightly. He looked almost alien, with his long, emaciated figure, skinnier than even Brad’s. Signs of addiction were present in the gaunt of his face and the brown rot of his teeth. Brad guessed Meth: it wasn’t a stretch. Those few, nearby undesirables still present in society had chosen that particular poison as their cash-cow.

Nonetheless, Brad showed no disrespect toward the man, nor in response to his request for “a pack of smokes.”

Brad turned away mechanically, lifting cigarettes from the display. He turned back and found himself staring down the end of a snubnose .38. It took his mind but a moment to connect with the steel death staring him down across the counter.

Brad dropped the cigarettes, raised his hands, “Take wh-whatever you want, man.”

“Give m-me e-everything in the d-drawer!” He stammered back with a strung-out scream.

His fury made him look more alien than any creature Brad had seen. The shaking steel death in his hand looked too familiar. Brad’s mind was slowed by terror, but the gun waggled and reality went in double speed.

“All the cash!” The man shouted, the gun pivoting left and right in a narrow arc. “Everything! Bag it. No funny stuff.”

“R-right,” Brad said with a habitual pull of a plastic bag. “N-no funny stuff.”

He rang up a false charge, opened the drawer. Hundreds in cash and change from the last few hours flowed into the bag. Had he not been alone, Brad knew, that money would’ve been locked away in the safe, and out of his hands. But the manager was home, sick, with the flu. The money was to pile up ‘til morning, when the next shift’s manager was due to collect before he clocked out.

Shaky hands fumbled paper-bills to the floor. “S-s-sorry.”

“Get ‘em!” He shouted.

Brad dropped to his knees, trembling. He felt as if standing before the firing squad. Tears fell involuntarily from his eyes. The alien creature softened.

“Nothin’ p-person, man. T-times is hard. Gotta’ support family. Nothin’s gonna’ happen to you, so long’s you pick up all that money.”

“R-right.” He stashed the last of the money into the bag, readied to hand it over.

“Yur comin’ with me,” he said, gesturing sideways with the gun. “Gonna’ cross the parking lot ‘n then you good. Can’t have the c-cops called too soon.”

Brad didn’t like it. He felt his stomach lurch. He stepped around the register, hands up and bag dangling from a thumb. He was escorted at gun-point into the cold night. The laterally-arranged fuel-pumps were vacant, save a single car just out of sight. The .38 compelled him across the lot, to the curb of the main-road, then across to its far-side. A car skidded to a stop before them.

Sirens blared through the night.

“You damn fool!” The creature barked at him.

He dove into the car, and for a flashing instant, Brad saw a human being. It was afraid, hungry. Then, the revolver rose and popped! A single round struck Brad’s gut. The shooter and his getaway car were gone before Brad hit the ground. How, he wasn’t sure until later, but those sirens screamed for the gas-station with angry vengeance. Brad lie in the snow, bleeding and half-frozen. A car inched over, its head-lights adding white to his pained and darkening vision.

Anyone else should have died that night. Brad wasn’t anyone else. In fact, he was the only “one else” for a young, espresso-skinned woman that more than qualified as stunning. As one of his regulars, she was also an independent, people-loving “loser,” content (like he) in the goings of her life.

Were she not so certain of that fact, she might never have been compelled to linger at the pump. She might never have been looking for an excuse to ask Brad out. She might never have wrestled with the decision, and thus witness the robbery, call the police, or watch Brad cross the road.

Had she refused to accept being a “loser,” she might have found herself in conflict with her feelings. Her nerves might then have gotten the best of her, and she might not have sat, waiting and arguing with herself. She might then have driven off, hopelessly romanticizing “what might’ve been.” Most of all, had she been anything else but herself, she would never have been quick enough to rush to Brad’s aid, or apply the life-saving pressure his wound required.

But she was herself, and she was there: she did apply the pressure, flag down the officers on scene, whom radioed EMT’s, then took her thorough description of the two men and their getaway vehicle. It wasn’t a half-hour after Brad was rushed to a nearby hospital that she was identifying the men. She waited two hours while she gave and signed statements, then made sure to locate and populate Brad’s otherwise-empty bedside.

What happened after he awoke is a matter of another tale, much too long to be told here. The conversation that took place immediately after he awoke was almost tedious in its way, but properly sets the tone for that lengthy tale, for those interested.

Brad awoke with a throbbing head. “Ugh. What happened?”

The woman was on her feet. She pressed him back to the bed, “Don’t try to sit up, you’ll pop your stitches.”

He hit a threshold of pain, then allowed her to ease him backward. Her espresso-skinned face, and jewel-bright eyes flitted through his mind, unseating a buried memory.

“You’re one of the regulars.”

She nodded. Her gentle hands and glowing smile forced a mental recall of the multitude of times they’d interacted. He’d seen her, felt a draw. He buried it, played it off as wishful thinking. Her smile glowed a little cooler now, but more from concern than anything.

Her hand withdrew but hesitated near his. She spoke almost breathlessly. “I s-saw everything, and… well, I wanted to stay here until someone else came, or until you w-woke up. I didn’t want you to feel alone after what happened.”

He gave an earnest smile, “Thank you. But… why?”

She chewed her bottom lip timidly, twiddled her nimble thumbs. “I was… um. I noticed they had no-one to call and … well, since I was there– and was sorta, gonna, maybe, ask you out– I figured I’d just s-stay… you know, as a f-friend. In c-case you n-needed someone… here, I mean.”

He blinked off a fog of morphine and pain. “You were gonna ask me out?”

Her big eyes glistened, “Y-yeah, I mean, i-if you wanted.”

He blushed, felt his cheeks reddened, and managed a laugh that made him wince. She looked as if about to lunge, fearing something more, but grimaced with a desperate laugh. Her gaze fell to her twiddling thumbs.

Brad watched her, found himself as equally stretched for words. “Wow.” His wishful thinking was rekindled into a blazing fire of hope, “I’m– and you’re so… I mean, why me? Why would someone so… be interested in me?”

She looked up with another timid, half-smile, having found her confidence again. “You’re cute, and I figured, since I see you everyday, we sort of have something in common. I-I really was only gonna ask for a-a date and then, well with everything now–” She sighed, “I understand if you don’t… want to, you know?”

He laughed again, shallower this time, then like her, found his confidence again. “From the sound of it, you saved my life. Least I can do is oblige such a… stunningly beautiful woman.”

Her eyes rose at him with a twinkle of hope. He let his hand rest atop hers, “I’m Brad, by the way.”

She giggled, shook it, “Sheila.”

One date: that was the agreement. And it was held to. Time and again, until long after they’d already become inseparable, they recalled that fateful meeting. No matter what anyone said about two such “losers,” they’d found perpetual joy in the fickleness of life– and in one another’s contentment of their place in it. Together, they took their own happiness and combined it, only to find more. What losers…

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Into Her Darkness: Part 5

5.

Not Going Back

The rest of their night passed in a lackadaisical haze. Crystal’s fatigue began to overwhelm her as she carried her new things into her room. Before long she found herself sitting on the edge of a bed covered in bags and boxes, utterly exhausted. Walking in and out of the room was equally difficult, the floor and desk littered with new merchandise, and a box of weapons and ammunition. The day had been fruitful, certainly, and she’d beaten herself up seeing to it.

Angela appeared in the door, leaned against one side, “Good day?”

“Definitely.”

“You want help putting it away?”

She shook her head, “I’d rather do it. Secure the idea it isn’t a dream, you know?”

“I do,” Angela reminded. “Arthur’s cooking dinner. You’re free to eat as soon as he’s done. Just get some sleep later. We start your real training tomorrow. You’ll need the energy.”

Again, Angela was true to her word. The morning was rough. Crystal’s machine-time was drawn out into true regimens. She went along the row, repeating the base-line work outs she done, then upping them until her body screamed agony and her limbs failed. She was given only enough reprieve to regain her breath before beginning again.

Angela kept her off the obstacle course, for now content to keep her lifting, pushing, pulling, and jogging as much and as long as possible. The base-line workouts would rebuild Crystal’s emaciated body. Only after could their work on expanding her strength begin. Arthur’s various protein shakes and calorie-rich meals did their best to quicken their pace, and over the first week Crystal’s sets and reps, or miles run, were increased. It felt as if only days had passed when she began seeing the shift. Her body was more toned and well-fed than it had been in years.

Angela too, seemed happy with her progress. Long ago she’d instructed her to leave her HUD off during training and practice. Crystal didn’t mind; half the time she forgot it was there. The rest of the time she wondered how it might ever be helpful. Soon enough though, Angela was reminding her to shut it down as she found herself playing with it more as an amusing oddity than the life-saving tech Angela assured her it was.

After the second, full week ended, the pair sat to discuss the next phase of training.

“You’ve done well. Much better than I expected. Better than I did when I started,” Angela assured her. “You have more untapped potential than anyone, so it’s time to move forward.”

Crystal was still sweating from her latest work-out. She squirted water into her mouth, sat on a weight bench in front of Angela. “Does that mean we won’t be doing this anymore?”

She shook her head, “No, we will. But we’ll be starting your agility and dexterity training with a section of obstacles on the course. I’ll have you picking locks soon. Got it?”

“Just tell me what to do.”

Angela smiled, “That’s what I want to hear.”

She led Crystal from the weight-room to the obstacle course. Along its left-side, a series of long beams, painted lines, and narrow, wall-high ledges were lined after one another. Near them higher up, wide ledges jutted from the wall at body-height from the ceiling. Rock-wall grapples led up to them and filled the space around them as hand-holds. The ledges were narrow beams leading across sections jutting this way and that or intersecting with others to create the first, agility training course.

Angela stopped near the first beam, and a line painted on the mats leading to it. “You see the path, right?” Crystal nodded. “Run it. The floor’s soft enough a fall won’t kill you, but avoid it. The last thing you want’s a broken leg so early in training.”

“We’re not using any safety gear?”

“Can’t. I need to know what you can do, not a crutch.”

Crystal swallowed terror. “I’ll do my best.”

Angela readied her stop-watch, “Take your time. This is just for reference. No pressure, okay?”

She muttered under her breath, “Okay. I can do this.”

Angela gave a three-count. Crystal bolted. She kept her feet aligned to the floor markings, followed it. A standing hop landed her atop the first bar, eyes forward. Her body automatically adjusted to the narrow beam. She reached its end, hopped to the first ledge. She teetered, forced her equilibrium. The next few ledges were strides apart, easy enough. Her confidence rose. A last pair of narrow ledges led to another high-beam, a ledge a jump from its end.

She strode across the ledges, managed a perfect hop to the beam, and took it with speed. Her confidence remained. The jump would be tougher. She’d make a full-left turn on the ledge to angle toward the wall of hand-holds.

She reached the end of the beam, hesitated, then jumped. Her feet landed off-center. Her confidence wavered. She found herself gripping the ledge, arms aching, hands bleeding. She felt, rather than saw, the floor over twenty feet below. A weak grunt emitted from her, with it went all but the last of her confidence.

She fought skinned palms and quivering arms as a fleeting thought flitted through her: a week ago she’d been incapable of this. She’d been too emaciated, too weak. Now, she was well-fed, muscled even. Angela believed in her. So much so, she found herself believing too. She had no reason not to believe now. She had to trust her gut, her mentor. Angela wouldn’t put her to a task she weren’t up to. Most of all, she had to remember failing Angela meant return to the street.

That did it.

I’m not going back.

She growled. Pulled. Pushed. Her bloody palms streaked wet on the ledge. Her throat groaned, strained, legs angled up. Her body pressed the rock wall. Confidence flared. Her feet worked. She propelled herself along it toward the next wall. She hit the edge, leapt. Her hands clasped rock-holds. Her legs recoiled off the wall. She yelped. Adrenaline flowed, blocked pain. She wasn’t going back. She couldn’t. If it meant crossing this course a million times. Falling to her death. She wasn’t going back.

She found herself angling down to the first high ledge. Her back kissed the wall. Feet side-stepped along it. They danced across the gap between one ledge and another. Deft steps put her at the first, jutting corner. It stuck out like a small box from the ceiling. Crystal’s feet and arms worked, kept her balanced. Her back scuffed the sharp corner with dull pain. It followed the wall-face to its front. Another side-step: she was around the next corner. Around an L. The last section of rock-holds led back to the floor.

Her breath was ragged. Mind and heart raced. She wouldn’t go back. She’d kill, maim, die to stay. An atavistic aggression surged through her. She’d been through hell. Life had tried to suffocate her. Every breath had been a fight. It was time to turn the tide. Time to take her life back from the forces working against it. They’d tried to beat her down again and again, never could. Never would. She’d always survived, beat the odds. She’d do so now too. And forever. She’d never find herself back on the street. Never again be poor, nor homeless. Never again eating from trash-cans.

The thoughts flung her down the holds until she dropped, with feline agility, and stuck her landing on the mats. Angela stopped the timer and Crystal rose, changed. She looked the same, sounded the same, in ways felt the same, but she was different. Both student and teacher sensed it. Her chest heaved from adrenaline surging along her spine while aggression and determination coursed through her in equal measures.

Angela approached her with a wily eye, “Good to see our effort’s not being wasted.” Crystal blew a hot breath to cool herself. Angela slotted her tablet in a back pocket, “C’mon, let’s have a little fun. You’ve done more than enough for today.”

She handed Crystal her water bottle, and led the way from the course to the concrete-block hallway. Crystal half-expected to end up in the training room. Instead, Angela led her past it and a few, other doors. The innards of them still remained a mystery, but one was about to be revealed. They stopped at the last room on the left: either a massive room, or yet another subdivided one.

“You’ll love this,” Angela said, unlocking the door with a thumb-print and a pass-code.

She pushed open the door and stepped in. Lights flared on. Immediately ahead, the room was wider, deeper. By now, she’d learned to expect just about anything from the place she was calling home. Somehow, the massive shooting range was still surprising.

To the left, the back-wall was covered in slotted pegboards and lonely, waist-high shelves. Both were covered in an arsenal out of a gun-nut’s wet-dream. Crystal couldn’t help but gawk. The collection was extensive. Weapons and ammunition of every type sat ready to be fired along the thousand yards of range across from them. The six motorized pulleys, controlled from waist-high tables beside them, waited to accompany them. Atop each sound dampeners like ancient, radio-headsets, sat idle, waiting.

“Wow,” Crystal gawked. “I never expected this.”

Angela led Crystal to the second table in line. Her pistol and TMPs out beside the ear-coverings. “It’s time you start basic weapons training. No pressure. Not yet. Today, fun. Tomorrow, you train. When I think you’re ready, we’ll add targets to the obstacle course. Then, you’ll run it with your weapons. Simple enough, right?”

Crystal nodded, slid her hand over the guns before her, “Are you sure I’m ready?”

Angela laughed, “You were born for this.” Crystal eyed her skeptically. “You have an enormous well of untapped-potential. You never had the chance to mature. To grow into anything. You’ve needed to have your energy focused. That’s all we’re doing– all we’ve been doing. Now, are you going to do this?”

She felt the second half of Angela’s question resound within her, despite it not being asked: “Or are you going back to the streets?” Her answer was obvious.

Crystal’s eyes narrowed, “Just tell me what to do.”

Angela patted her back, “Always what I want to hear. We’ll start with your pistol.”

Angela drew the “Baby Deagle” and began to illustrate: its parts. How to load. Unload. Break it down. Assemble it. She set it aside, did the same for one of the TMPs. The small machine-pistols were stripped of their attachments. Crystal guessed to get her used to them. She was excited and nervous all the same. Her anticipation overwhelmed any fear. Angela’s insistence on fun only reinforced it. The next few hours were a thorough weapons-handling course, interspersed with stances and minor demonstrations. The mood remained light. Live fire finally began, then lasted into the evening.

There was no denying Angela’s satisfaction. Crystal was progressing, phenomenally. Untapped potential or not; the more they trained, the more she excelled. Over the next week, Crystal more than halved her time on the courses. She doubled her weight and running regimens.

It was difficult to know where the shift had come from. Crystal however, knew exactly where it had come from; nearly falling off the wall. She’d faced the possibility that everything was for nothing, and denied its existence, and any plans for failure the course or the universe might’ve had in mind.

Before she knew it, Crystal and Angela were once more in the former’s room. Angela did her tell-tale shoulder-lean against the jamb. It was increasingly coming to mean something important needed to be said. For the last four weeks, Crystal had trained ceaselessly. She’d progressed along the obstacle course to encompass nearly all of it. She’d become proficient with her weapons. Was more than skilled at the simpler trades of lock-picking, and pick-pocketing. But the look in Angela’s eyes said there was more to come. At that, it said of everything, it was to be taken the most seriously.

She crossed her arms and cleared her throat. “You’ve done well. We’ll continue the regimen we’ve been running. But it’s time to show me what you’ve got.”

Crystal stood from the bed, took a step forward. She was already more muscled, lean in place of malnourished. Her shaved patches of hair were due for another shaving, but Angela was holding off.

Crystal stood firm a few paces in front of her, but said nothing. Angela stiffened slightly, straightened from the jamb, “I’m going to test you. Extensively. If you pass, you’ll be given the option of continuing. If you fail, you can continue training and attempt to pass again, or leave immediately. In either case, a second failure means going no further. If you succeed, you’ll be given one final task. After that, if you wish to leave, you may, but if you stay, you will have committed to our partnership. Understood?” Crystal nodded. “Good. We’ll begin immediately. Follow me.”

Into Her Darkness: Part 2

2.

Ground Rules

The pair occupied the bathroom most of the afternoon. Despite evidence of living alone, Crystal learned Angela had a valet. The old man paid no mind to the two young women in the bath. He merely rustled in with bags of food and set them on the floor. Angela thanked him and he disappeared again.

“Arthur,” she said snipping hair. “Hired him to monitor my security system, been here ever since, helping out.” Angela directed her to stand, uncorked the drain, and switched on the shower. “Scrub down. I gotta’ dig for something.”

She sank to her knees at the bathroom counter, dug until the shower was off. Crystal climbed out to dry herself. Angela emerged with an electric trimmer and towels, directed Crystal to sit on the toilet and took a spot on the tub’s outer-edge. She draped a couple towels around, scalped the sides of Crystal’s hair down like her own, then stood a few paces away.

She nodded to herself, satisfied, then eyed Crystal, “You wanna’ prune that forest?”

“Huh?” Angela eyed her groin. Crystal chuckled inexplicably. “I guess. It’s like wild kingdom down there, huh?”

Angela handed over the trimmer, “Meet me in the kitchen. We have things to go over.”

“Okay. Angela?” She hesitated at the door. “I dunno why you picked me, but… thanks.”

Her mouth drew a crooked half-smile, “Wait ’til after the first job. Tell me then if you’re grateful.”

She left Crystal at the mirror: for a woman that hadn’t touched herself in years, let alone been with someone, the experience was foreign– to say the least. She wouldn’t have minded the “forest” if she’d hadn’t been the type obsessed with hygiene. Manicures, pedicures, waxes; that was her way of life. Her former “baldness” meant anything was a sign of less-fortunate times. In the end she opted for what was quickest, somewhere between bald and not. At least it matched her head.

She dressed to find herself resembling her neo-punk benefactor more. Her hair was shaved at the sides; short and spiked on the top and back. Her clothing, a touch too tight in the bust, bore that same combat-ready punker look.

But given the corpse-stench emanating from her clothing on the floor, it might as well have been a Versace ball gown. It certainly felt like one. It might not have been her style before, but lacking one entirely had made her flexible. Besides, she looked hot, like some alt-culture model. One with a future. Helluva lot better than when she’d woken up. Preferences be damned, she felt hot.

Angela sat along the island’s far-side in the kitchen. Laid out before her were a series of blue-prints, digital photo-prints, and a laptop, amid a plethora of other, indistinct paperwork. Scattered among the piles were the Chinese food containers, untouched steaming the air with heavenly aromas. Angela dug at a box of chow mein, intensely focused on the screen and barely blinking. The flit of Crystal’s approach, broke her focus. She shut shut the laptop, motioned to a stool across from her, and shoved over a box of food.

“Sit. Eat.” Crystal obliged. “You need to bulk up or you’ll never have enough energy to train.”

She opened a box, “Train? You mean like weight-training?”

“Among other things,” Angela said between chews. Crystal’s silence begged elaboration as she attempted to avoid looking slovenly. Angela didn’t notice, too busy speaking between alternate bites. “First of all, you need some muscle. Means strength training. Bulking diet. Plus, need to be nimble. So, gymnastics too. Eventually, a cutting diet to shape and mold yourself. You’ll need free running to supplement that. Dexterity and balance training too. All of that requires an agile build.”

“Wait,” Crystal said, head beginning to swim. “What’s free running? And why an agile build?”

Angela washed down a hunk of food with a swish of wine. “Worst thing for a thief’s getting caught. You need to be able escape any heat. That means putting as much ground and environment as possible between you and your pursuers. Best way to do that’s moving fast through places cops and regular crooks can’t get through. Free-running guarantees it.”

“And it’s what?”

“Parkour,” she said simply, as if the word should have meaning to Crystal. “Running. Climbing. Vaulting. Jumping. Rolling.” Crystal gave her a sort of deranged squint. “It sounds crazy, but it’s kept me alive.”

Crystal chewed slower, “I’m not sure I can do it is all.”

“That’s your first obstacle to overcome then. Things a person can’t do come as a result of one of two limitations; the mental or the physical. Physically, no, you couldn’t do it right now, but that’s the point of training. Mentally, you’ll never do anything if you don’t believe you can. So just trust me when I say, you can, and I’ll teach you how. Got it?”

Crystal manifested as much confidence as she could. “Yeah.”

“Good.” Angela finished the last of her food. She headed for the fridge, dug out a bottle of water, set it in front of Crystal. “You’ll have to learn other things too– invaluable tools of the trade. So long as you do what I say, and trust me, you’ll do fine.”

Crystal hesitated with a grimace, “What about in the mean-time? How’m I supposed to get back and forth between here and–” She hesitated again “Home?”

“You won’t. There’s a spare room for you. I can’t risk anyone following you back. Least, not ’til you’re trained. Besides, you need restful sleep. The next few days are going to be rough. You can’t train riding a cement floor every night.”

She stammered in confusion, “Are y-you sure?”

“Certain,” Angela said with a soft look. “This is home until you decide to leave. Or rather, if you decide to leave. Everything’s open to you, but if you want the gravy-train to keep rolling, you’ll abide my only two rules; no guests, and no stealing– especially from me. I see the irony, but what you learn’s only to be used on our jobs. Unnecessary theft brings unnecessary heat. Everything we work for can be gone in a blink if you get caught for petty theft– or something equally else asinine. Besides, I have a seven-figure bank account. If you need anything, ask.”

Crystal swallowed the last of her food, grateful for it and the seemingly endless hospitality of her benefactor. She helped Angela clean their trash, then stood before her in the kitchen.

Angela instructed her with a few words, “You need rest. Street-living takes a lot outta’ you. It’s still early, but I have things to do. Morning will come sooner than you think. It’s not going to be easy. Get as much rest as possible: lay around. Watch TV. Have some wine, beer, whatever, but get to sleep early. Okay?”

“Okay. And thanks again.”

“You want to show your appreciation, do it through your training. That’s enough for me.” She pointed to a doorway opposite the garage. “Your room’s through there. Second door on the left. Bathroom’s across the hall. You need anything you can’t find, ask Arthur. He’ll show you or get it for you. Whatever you need.”

“Where’re you going?” Crystal asked as Angela headed for the garage.

“To meet someone,” she said cryptically. “Relax. It’s all good.”

Crystal shrugged and Angela slipped out. A distant engine fired, deeper and louder than the bike. Crystal guessed one of the trucks. The sounds shrank away, ascended, then disappeared altogether. Crystal glanced around, lost for action, then headed for her room. The corridor was long, wide. Dark wood doors occupied either wall, spaced a modest distance. The corridor ended in a set of equally dark, double-doors. Crystal stopped at her new room, almost knocked, but glanced up and down the hall then stepped inside.

It was much larger than she’d expected. A queen-size bed, armoire, chest of drawers, desk and a television took up most of the space. Various electronics occupied the spaces between and within them. The house’s décor was continued in earthen wood and radiated warmth. It swelled Crystal’s breath in her chest. She’d hit the lottery, found herself once more wondering if her mind had cracked. Was it a dream? Some extraordinary hallucination?

Thoughts compelled her to the bed. She sank onto it. The plush mattress coddled her. The mattress and sheets were brand new, unused. She let herself fall against it, let it hug her body with comfort. She drew herself onto the bed, then splayed out as wide as possible. A giggle bubbled up from her gut, trembled along her throat, then forced itself out.

Once, long ago, she’d had a bed like this. A room like this. She’d had a television. And a desk. And a refrigerator. And plenty of food. She’d had clothes. Furniture. Everything a person could ever want or need. In a blink, they’d been taken away, stolen by willful negligence. Crystal’s mother hadn’t suffered. Everyone knew she wouldn’t. Crystal had.

As soon as legal, she was thrown out to fend for herself. Money wasn’t tight. It was non-existent. Luxury too. Necessity hadn’t been covered, only survival. Crystal’s mother was living the high-life, bouncing from one trophy-case to another while Crystal lived from trash-cans, under leaky roofs, while fighting starvation tremors.

Now, all of that was looking to change. Again, in a blink. Obviously, maintaining the change would require more effort, as well as flexible definitions of right and wrong. But her sense of right and wrong had been dictated by people whose own actions defied the true definitions. Or at least, what Crystal felt to be the true definitions. Her parents had been liars, cheats. They’d abandoned their child for their own, selfish desires. Thief or not, criminal or otherwise, Angela had already shown herself the inverse. The moral conflict was as obvious as it was clean-cut. So long as no-one was unduly hurt, there were worse ways to make a living. Angela was right about that. Crystal’d seen it herself.

In all, Crystal could do worse than to emulate Angela. No-one was perfect, certainly, but regardless of motivations, Angela seemed a genuinely good person. No-one visited kindnesses on the destitute or down-trodden without some selfish motivation. Even if it was as simple as pride from helping, it was there. Angela had been honest, forthcoming from the beginning. She did right by Crystal as someone had done right by her, and in exchange, Crystal would become a thief.

If there was one thing Crystal’d learned living on the street, it was how much people had and didn’t need. Even in the room she’d been given, there was more than her wildest dreams would’ve allowed for. Ultimately, that was the mark of reality; however seemingly absurd it might be in retrospect, her mind would never concoct such hospitality nor good fortune.

She felt her breaths swell again, but refused to move. The bed was too comfortable, the room too warm. She didn’t want to disturb a single iota of the moment. Still, tears welled in her eyes. Their slight chill as they met air along her cheeks was the only affliction to the warmth. Even if without full understanding of how or why, life had finally turned a corner. She wept quietly, draining her grief so it might one day be replaced with hope, joy even.

Into Her Darkness: Part 1

1.

Honor Amongst Thieves

Crystal Kane sat at the front counter of a retro, 1950’s-style diner. It was a place three or four times her age. In her late-twenties, it might not have been saying much, but it felt the opposite. She’d been through the wringer, somehow come out in one piece, but older, thinner than felt fair. She’d been a cheerleader in high-school. One of the popular, beautiful girls, that exclusively dated those of similar status, and shunned anyone below her. That had ended on graduation day. She found herself alone when everyone else was going off to college. The friends that promised to call were, like so many other things, lost to life– disappeared without a trace.

That summer had been hell. Crystal had been a blissfully ignorant airhead all through school. Then, as if to reinforce that those days were over, life crumbled. Only weeks into “life beginning” she learned her father’d cheated on his taxes for all of his life. Likewise, her mother had… well, cheated the rest of it. The family split up. Dad went to jail. Mom occupied a new man’s trophy case each night. Crystal ended up out on her ass. Not much had changed since, at least not thematically.

A waitress poured her a cup of coffee at the counter. She’d never been one for alcohol. Downers weren’t her style– the costs of having been peppy until life became enough of a depressant to need no more. Most days, she haunted the diner ‘til lunch, sucking down coffee like a drunk to their hooch. No-one seemed to mind, nor bothered to learn her name. Par for the course, she guessed. She wasn’t one to complain. Not anymore.

The only spot of luck she’d found was the economy’d– and society at that– nose-diving the same time she did. She and others like her took advantage of it. They found free lodging in rundown or abandoned buildings in newly forming ghettos. Hardly the Ritz, but anything with a roof and most of four walls was better than street sleeping in bad weather. Along with a few others in “her building” Crystal managed to scrape together meals of scavenged offenses into a communal soup pot.

Crystal couldn’t recall her last, solid meal. She’d only managed to afford coffee by scouring the streets for change: one cup, one dollar, unlimited refills. The streets were running out of change though. Given the state of things, they weren’t likely to be replenished anytime soon. “Flat broke” was an understatement. There wasn’t a damned thing she’d bought or owned in nearly a decade. Periods were the worst, and a subject better left un-broached.

Someone sank into place beside her. The peripheral profile and weight on the stool said it was a woman. Odd. No-one sat near her. Ever. She didn’t blame them. She’d been forced to showering only during a proper rain. At most, once a week if she was lucky.Usually less.

The woman didn’t seem to care though. Something in the air between them said she was entirely different to most people. Crystal still refused to look at her, fearing any visible revulsion would shatter the remnants of her broken spirit. Nonetheless, she couldn’t deny the sensation of something forming in the air between them.

A robust, tomboyish voice directed words at her, “You look like hell.”

It couldn’t have been me, could it? Crystal remained motionless, wondering if her mind had finally cracked. She’d been waiting for life’s weight to split it open like an egg for years now. Sanity had always managed to keep it cushioned though. Maybe this was finally it– sweet release.

“Need a shower too,” the voice added. “Hair-cut wouldn’t hurt.”

The waitress stepped over, white and polka-dot clad. She habitually refilled Crystal’s cup. The other woman ordered a cup, waited to say anything else until it was brought.

“Talky thing, ain’t ya?” She said wincing at the coffee. “Shit coffee. Why’d you even bother to spend money on this shit?”

Crystal’s head finally rose, checked her left side to ensure no one was there. The same, empty stool greeted her as always. Her head turned back and right, the woman’s features focused. She was like something from a post-punk vid; shaved temples, short, platinum-blonde on top with blue highlights, and more piercings than seemed possible for a human face. Feline features around blue eyes and dark make-up drowned the metal. The neo-punk was topped off by a shredded t-shirt, leather jacket, and tight jeans stretched over combat boots.

If Crystal’d had any feelings left, she’d have found herself both envious and aroused by the woman. It wasn’t that she liked women, but rather, this one exuded such cocky confidence it madeherboth unlikable and unyieldingly desirable. Such paradoxical nature alone forced Crystal’s eyes to linger.

The woman met her eyes. “You know, if you cleaned up, you’d be good looking. You want a job?”

Crystal’s brow furrowed, “I’m not a whore, if that’s what you’re asking.”

The woman threw her head back with a laugh. “Honey, if I wanted a whore, I’d be asking the broads outside.” Crystal wasn’t amused. The woman’s face reformed seriously. “No, I need a woman. One rough enough to handle herself, but soft enough to look good. If you’re interested, just say yes. There’ll be a point of no return. Any time you want out before, say so. Once you’re past it, you’re locked in. Got it?”

Crystal shrugged. She’d done a lot of things, awful by even depraved standards. Mostly, it was solely to survive. Then again, what wasn’t these days? This idea seemed ludicrous anyhow: some stranger appears, offers her an out from the hell she’d been sucked into? Not a chance.

“What would I have to do?”

“Well, first, get cleaned up. Then, we’ll get you some new clothes. You’ll have to look the part, like me– so clothes, haircut, piercings.” The woman eyed her extensively. “Eventually, you’ll have to do something specific for me.”

“Like what?” she asked, more hopeful than she expected.

The woman frowned, glanced around, “You agree to come with me, I’ll tell you everything when we’re alone.”

Crystal eyed the half-empty coffee cup in her hand: what was the worst that could happen? Death? There were a lot worse ways she could think to go than trying to get out of this mess.

“Uh… okay.”

A few minutes later, the two slipped outside together. “I’m Angela, by the way.”

“Crystal.”

Angela led her around a corner of the diner, into an alley behind it. A BMW motorcycle was propped in the center of the small roadway, a helmet strapped to it. Angela climbed on, passed over the helmet. “Just don’t fall off.” Crystal did her best to swing a leg over the bike, put her hands around Angela’s belly. “No getting fresh. Not ’til you’ve showered, anyway.”

Crystal managed a snort. It was sort of a laugh. At least, closer to one than she’d managed in a long time. The bike started with a gurgle of fuel and the high-sounds of a performance-tuned engine. They took off, raged toward top-speed. Streets and ramshackle buildings blurred and zipped past. The scenery only sharpened long enough to corner before once more racing up to speed. The bike zigged and zagged toward the city’s edge. One of the piers came into view; a place once a center of nightlife where tourists were as plentiful as residents. Now, it was a sad caricature of itself. A few strips of abandoned buildings and storefronts were all that remained, like a coastal, ol’ west ghost town.

Angela maneuvered around a corner, into an alley, and raced toward a warehouse at its end. An abrupt turn found them facing down another alley. In its center a section of street began to rise up, wide enough to accept a vehicle: an elevator camouflaged by its place in the road and built into a housing underground. They zoomed into it, sank beneath the street. The elevator settled into place. Lights flared on across panel-lighted walls. Crystal was blinded. She blinked out water, found herself among a veritable showroom of modern and classic cars. Her jaw nearly fell off as her eyes bulged.

“Hop off,” Angela instructed.

Crystal obliged. Angela zoomed forward to a spot at the far-left, turned, and inched the bike backward with her boot-tips. Crystal shut her mouth, shuffled over, neck swiveling to take in classic muscles parked among super-cars, pick-ups, SUVs, and other bikes.

Whatever Angela did was clearly profitable, but what use could she have for Crystal? She wasn’t skilled, or all that smart, and had been living a vagrant’s life the last decade. She’d scrounged for every minor necessity. Luxuries didn’t even exist anymore– not beyond the few she saw now. What the hell could she possibly help with?

She met Angela at far-end of the garage, the bike’s engine still clicking from heat. Angela threw her leg over, rose to full height, then hung her helmet off a handlebar. She rounded at Crystal, surveyed her shabby clothing and hair again.

“Shower and a haircut.”

She thumbed her way past a print-locked door. Crystal followed her into a kitchen of black and chrome appliances, mahogany-stained cabinets, and black-granite counter tops. LEDs crawled to full-brightness in the ceilings and walls as they entered, cast warm light across equally warm, earthen tones. An island counter and stools at one side sat amid the L-Shaped kitchen’s center. Angela’s boots reverberated off the hardwood to the double-wide fridge/freezer combo as she dug out a bottle of wine.

Food peered out from the fridge, made Crystal’s stomach growl and her mouth water. Angela must’ve heard it. She whipped ’round, “I’ll order in. You like Chinese?”

She couldn’t be sure anymore, but wasn’t picky. “S-sure.”

“Good.” She slid a phone from her pants pocket, thumbed it, held it up.

For the next few minutes, Crystal was transfixed as Angela bantered Chinese to someone on the other end. She ended the call, slid the phone into a pocket, and dug for a corkscrew and scissors in a drawer. She led Crystal through the adjoined living room. More motion-sensor lights did their upward crawl, revealing plush, leather furniture, a glass coffee-table, and a large television and stereo sitting on standby. The place reeked of an excess contrary to the neo-punk air Angela’d cultivated. Yet somehow, Crystal sensed she was even more at home here than anywhere, as if her confidence alone ensure it.

They entered a large bedroom, passed its king-sized bed for a pair of doorways. Angela handed over the wine-bottle, directed Crystal into one door– a bathroom– and entered a walk-in closet beside it. The bathroom was the most modest room she’d seen yet: quaint, with a full shower-tub, toilet, and studio lighted mirror somehow retaining the elegance of the home’s other décor. Crystal focused on herself in the mirror though; it’d been months, years maybe, since she’d seen herself reflected in anything other than a sheet of metal.

She blamed Angela even less now for wanting her to clean up: her hair was more dread-locked than anyone but a Rastafarian had a right to. Her face looked smeared by handfuls of grease and road dirt to say nothing of the utterly pitiful clothing she wore. Above all, she reeked. She couldn’t smell it herself, so long accustomed to it, but she could smell everything else. By comparison, toilet mold was pleasant.

Angela reappeared with a pile of clothing, set it aside to unlace her boots, remove her socks, and roll up her pants, revealing a plethora of tattoos.

“Get naked.”

“Huh?”

She moved to turn on the tub, “You need to soak that shit off, and I need to cut your hair. So. Get naked.” Crystal hesitated. “I see it every day. If it makes you feel better, I’ll get naked too.”

Her eyes widened, “No, that’s… It’s fine. I’ll just–”

“Jesus, here,” she interrupted, tugging off Crystal’s long coat.

She helped to undress her upper half, then tossed the dirty clothes aside. A bra was evidently more than Crystal’d been allowed. Moreover, her clothing hadn’t prevented her bare skin from getting just as greasy and dirty as the rest of her.

The bath frothed with bubbling soap as Angela helped Crystal from her pants. There was no denying the homeless girl’s discomfort. To her credit, she powered through it for the sake of her new benefactor. Likewise, Angela remained detached, handled the whole thing as if a nursemaid.

Crystal plunged her feet into the hot water. Her eyes welled up involuntarily; a warm bath. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a warm bath. She sank into the water, like a cooked noodle snaking through a fork. The tears flowed as she submerged her head. On emerging, they were just more wetness, camouflaged by dirt-streaks and flushed cheeks.

Angela gave her a moment, then sat on the back-ledge of the tub behind her. “This is all gonna’ have to come off,” she said, settling in with scissors in-hand. “I’ll do my best, but honestly, you’d be better off shaving it.”

Hair-styles were the last thing on Crystal’s mind. The warmth infecting her was too powerful. The urge to sleep came on but would mean squandering it. Instead, she let a dull dreaminess take her. With it came the distinct fear of if she’d hallucinated Angela’s existence. If she had, she didn’t want it to end. She’d go to her grave never seeing reality again. Angela’s hands weighed her shoulders though, telling her it was reality; a bizarre one where someone gave a shit. At that, more of one than an entire world combined.

So, what was the price? She couldn’t help but wonder. Angela’s hands were rough, used to hard labor or something else that she couldn’t place. Their grip was strong; it tugged her hair firmly this way and that. The precise, staccato notes of the scissors told of dexterous fingers, certain of themselves and their actions.

Crystal’s curiosity finally piqued. “Why’re you doing this?”

Angela answered as best she could, keeping her mind focused on the task at-hand. “Short answer, I need a new partner. My job isn’t the kind you can do alone. My last partner left after a big job. I can’t keep working without one. Thing is, I know what it’s like being a street rat. I was one once. If it hadn’t been for someone doing this for me, I’d be where you were this morning.”

She was grateful, but the obvious question needed to be asked, “What kind of work do you do?”

“Let’s just say its legality is questionable,” she replied, tilting Crystal’s head. “Sit up.”

Crystal inched upward, nipples hardening from the cool air above water. Angela maneuvered her back, between her legs, laid her head back to trim the front of her hair. Crystal closed her eyes to avoid the awkwardness of looking up at her.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know what that means.”

“I’m a contract thief.” Crystal’s eyes opened to a squint. Angela’s hands stilled. “Don’t judge me when I’m helping you. Trust me, there’s a lot worse ways to get by. Few pay as well.”

She winced, “Sorry. I’m… not judging you, but you don’t have to– you know, hurt people, right?”

“Only if they try to hurt me,” she said sternly. Crystal frowned. “You want out, say so.”

Crystal thought about it: given what she’d seen so far, Angela’s lifestyle was… well, a lifestyle. To say it was leaps and bounds beyond hers missed just how different their two worlds were. Even before the fall, she hadn’t seen such luxury. That it was all funded by so-called “dirty money” was unimportant given she possessed only a set of ragged clothes. If forced to choose between “dirty money” and penniless street-living, her morality was more than flexible.

Crystal eased her head back, “No. I’m still in.”

“But?”

“… Is it, you know, dangerous?”

Angela eased slowly into motion again, “Sometimes.”

Crystal closed her eyes. “Just don’t get me killed.”

“That’s the plan.”

Something acknowledged the possibility of it. Something else said she’d do everything to avoid it. Why, Crystal wasn’t sure, but a sense of intense loyalty resounded beneath it. At the very least, Crystal would follow things to their “point of no return.” Wherever it was, until then she’d at least feel like a human being again, rather than a creature eking surviving breaths. Maybe even, Angela’s company would prove as worthwhile as she felt Crystal’s would. Only time would tell.

Short Story: Her Hidden Power

Tiffany Winter sauntered through the door of her town’s lone department store. Flanking her were three of her best-friends, girls in their own right whom had nothing deeper in their minds then boys, clothes, and celebs. They would argue over and discuss all three subjects nearly incessantly, and none the wiser that Tiffany alone was the only one with a mind above (or rather to them, below,) all of these things. Indeed, Tiffany’s mind was quite unique, but only she knew it. She saw to it too that no-one else did. If they had, her secret would be out.

Most people in her position would fear the other popular girls learning they were actually a brain. That wasn’t Tiffany’s fear. In fact, that was the reason she’d developed the gaggle of slack-jawed plebs that followed her day and night. She somehow possessed both Einsteinian-level intelligence, and hollow-brained grace in a combination that made her socially lethal on a level none could hope to reach.

If she’d been asked, she’d have guessed that the girls that always followed her, and the guys that sought her out, were so intensely stupid they couldn’t comprehend how smart she was. “No matter,” and “No offense,” she’d say, before carrying on with, “Not all of us can grasp that the square root of the speed of light is inversely proportional to the speed and quantity of your intelligence.”

Whatever she meant by it, it certainly wasn’t any normal person’s meaning– even one of moderate intelligence and understanding of the terms therein. Simply, they couldn’t know it. Only she could. That was just how her brain worked. And why should she suffer when it was everyone else that was too stupid to understand her?

She and her gaggle sauntered through the store’s merchandise detectors and toward the “women’s” section. Lately, she and the others had taken to calling themselves women, despite still being teenage girls with less life experience than most insects. All their families were wealthy enough that not even Tiffany, with her fabulous brain, could comprehend living on little to no money. Even if she’d been forced to, she’d have used her secret weapon– the one that no-one knew about– to somehow get her way.

For most girls and women, that secret weapon would be their body, or some special trick of sexual or mental prowess they reserved for themselves. Tiffany had something much greater than that, and she’d known not to flaunt it, lest someone learn of it and the game be up. A proper explanation, she knew, was impossible. It was one of those things that needed to be seen to be believed. That is, if she’d have allowed it to be seen.

After three hours of giggling over boys and different outfits, Tiffany readied to treat herself to the sweet taste of her boon. She and the other girls stood in the check-out line, the gaggle empty-handed, but Tiffany with a cartful of shirts, jeans, dresses, and most important of all, shoes. There were more shoes than anything else, enough that they filled the main body of the cart and its bottom rack, forcing the clothes to hang off the sides and stick out at random angles.

Any onlookers would have thought this a problem. Not for the cart itself, but rather for the girl whom might need so many when she possessed only two feet. There were enough shoes there, an onlooker might suppose, to shoe a third world nation a few times over. Sneakers, pumps, stilletos, flats, boots, dress shoes, sandals, even a pair of cleats or two. The fetish had clearly skyrocketed to addiction levels.

But there were no onlookers around, no balkers, not even a few elderly shoppers to watch skeptically. Thus Tiffany remained free from criticism. For a half hour, the haggard cashier made light conversation as he scanned all of Tiffany’s clothing and shoes. Before he’d looked tired, now he looked outright dreadful. Tiffany and the other girls gossiped with the effeminate man as he grew all the more hunched. Clearly, though his shift had only just begun, Tiffany’s obscene load was wearing on him.

And thus, as the other girls went outside to causally await their leader– spurned not only by Tiffany’s hidden power, but also her wizened insistence– she revealed the power to no-one and the cashier was none the wiser.

He read off an amount in the thousands, a hefty charge even for her parents’ considerable wealth. She met his eyes with a wild look; that was all she need. His face went blank, hypnotized. She made a motion to mock handing over a credit card. He slid the invisible credit card through a reader, never breaking eye-contact. Even the computer was fooled enough to process the transaction. How? Tiffany wasn’t sure, but she didn’t care so long as it printed the receipt.

It did. The long receipt spooled out for near-on five minutes, her and the haggard, effeminate man never breaking eye contact. Had anyone been around, it would’ve given her away. Fortunately, Tiffany had seen to that too– by emanating a mental command that passively kept everyone away from her. Meanwhile, the cashier snapped from his trance, his memory of having swiped a credit-card as recent and solid as it was false.

He tore off the receipt, folded it several times, then handed it over with a smile and a pleasant wish of wellness. She heaved against the cart, steered out to her brand-new car, procured in the same manner as everything else. Her dad had always said she had a way of getting whatever she wanted. If only he knew. If only anyone knew. Then again, if they did, the game would be up.

Tiffany gave herself a sly smile.

She stopped at the car and began to load the trunk. Fleeting guilt bubbled in her gut. It always did. Technically, it was stealing. Then again, if no-one saw it, or knew about it, was it? The feeling was always supplanted by the knowledge of what someone had once said to her, “Use your resources. Be smart. Be proud of you inborn-gifts.” Maybe that person hadn’t meant, “use them to manipulate late the human mind,” but how could they argue with a girl using her talents?

She wasn’t sure what others would’ve called her if they knew, but she called herself a Psionic Thief. Or at least, she would’ve had she told anyone. She never did. Mind manipulation was science-fiction nonsense, no matter what clique you belonged to. No matter, not everyone can grasp that the square root of the speed of light is inversely proportional to the speed and quantity of their intelligence.

Whatever it meant to others, to Tiffany, it meant she could do whatever she wanted, and her hidden power made damned sure she could.

The Nexus Project: Part 8

14.

The shuttle rode solar turbulence right into the Ganymede spaceport. The combination moon-space station was once more smeared with light. Dots flickered in the distance below along a world of countless mines and industrial factories. Only the slightest hint of something cut through the atmosphere. The sun at its distant angle, with Jupiter’s enormous shadow encompassing it, shimmered from the climate barrier only just visible over the moon.

The shuttle came to a rest and the trio pushed down the boarding hallway. Crowds surged and rolled around them in the terminal, but Simon kept pace this time. His mind was caught in the whirlwind of questions spurred by their earlier revelations. He’d tried to sleep for the sake of healing, but couldn’t slough off the questions lining his thoughts. Every breath was another layer, another branching tree of inquiry that unnerved any hope for calm.

Even as they ducked, weaved, and pushed for a far-off elevator, he found logic in complete disagreement with the plot enacted. It seemed so far-fetched to go to such trouble to steal data that had barely manifested. If it was stolen by a planted agent, why so blatantly and boldly? Why expose your agent? Moreover, why impersonate a secretary? Josie hardly had confidential-level access. What was the purpose? Frost? Why not a more senior agent provocateur, someone with access and confidence, and just as easily replicated?

The more Simon considered it, the less sense it made. He found himself whizzing through the spaceport in an elevator car before his autopilot disengaged. A thought suddenly occurred; what if they couldn’t infiltrate the upper-echelons? What if, for some reason, the theft’s blatancy was to cover up for something else– to keep the ISC working doubly hard while something bigger happened elsewhere? What could it be? Who was involved? What if everything else was a smokescreen to plant someone else in their midst, or enact a different kind of sabotage?

Simon hit the emergency stop on the elevator.“What’re you doing?”

He found his words with difficulty, his throat aflame from the thought of speaking, “Someone else. Is. Involved.”

She eyed him curiously, “What? How can–”

“I. Know.” Over the course of a long, painful minute, he explained his previous thoughts, “Who. Could. It be?”

She shook her head, “I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense. It may not make sense until we find the Josie impersonator.” He stared at the floor. “We must ensure Josie survives. If she’s truly being held captive, she may have important information. Possibly her captor’s identity, or even their plans.” She shoved the emergency stop button in, “But we can’t know until we confirm Snow.”

He accepted the Matriarch’s wisdom, if only for the sake of stoking his own thoughts further. It was a quarter of an hour before they found themselves was once more in Snow’s den, his soldiers gone at his behest. Niala reached into her gown, tossed Snow a small holo-disk that lit up with a 3D projection. An image of Josie’s face spun slowly from Snow’s upturned paw.

“She’s a MeLon. We’re looking for the original as well. We believe she’s being held nearby, possibly on Ganymede itself.”

Snow stared at the image. A corner of his muzzle lifted to bare his teeth. He closed his paw over the image, then lowered it, “This lizard will pay for its crimes.”

“I would expect nothing less.”

Snow eyed her as she carefully considered something. He spoke of it with an almost sarcastic pleasure, “Troubled, domess?

She grit her teeth, “We need you with us.”

He grunted a smile, “Incapable of facing the threat alone? Matriarch, you’re slipping.”

She snorted frustration, “This isn’t a joke, Snow. You know how dangerous a MeLon can be, especially when holding someone hostage.”

His animosity fell away to curiosity, “Hostage? A MeLon? Wishful thinking. MeLon’s don’t take prisoners, Matriarch.”

For the first time, Simon spoke, “Why?”

Snow smiled, more from having something the human wanted than seeing its difficult speech. “So it is not entirely autonomous. It speaks like a man.” Snow leaned with a predatory sniff of the air, “It smells like a man.” He straightened with a forward step, eye-to-eye with Simon, “But does it have the value of a man, I wonder.”

Simon snarled; an effect of the Wolf’s ability to manipulate all creatures’ utter loathing, “I do.”

For a moment no-one was certain what would happen. Snow seemed to be deciding whether to drop his enmity, or make Simon an early lunch. When the cunning smile flashed again he turned for his throne, sat upon it. A small beam cut through the near-darkness from the throne’s apex, aimed downward to a place before it’s King. A series of projected displays appeared. Snow fed the disk into a slot beneath an armrest. The screens flashed, jumped. Feeds from all over Ganymede flickered and flitted past. Facial recognition software splayed dots over Josie’s image, searched the feeds for it.

“If your MeLon has been on Ganymede, my program will find it.” Niala breathed small relief. He snarled again, but it relaxed as he focused on the feeds, “She never told you about Ceres, Human.”

Niala was about to speak when Simon re-affirmed Snow’s statement, “No.”

He spoke as though she weren’t present, “The Matriarch has a way of feigning loyalty until she sees gain not to.” Snow glanced at her from the corner of an eye, expected Simon to do the same. His eyes darted to the human only to find them staring at his own, “You surprise me, Human.”

Simon rasped a full sentence without a stop, “I aim to please.”

If it was possible, Snow seemed to regard him with even more disdain than before, “Your species has a colossal pair.” His eyes refocused on the search. “For eons, your people enslaved the Canines, dangled food and security before their noses until they heeded your commands. Then, if they stepped out of line, you killed them or left them to die. Your people so diluted our bloodlines some of our descendants are unrecognizable.”

Simon rasped magma, “Your point?”

He ignored him to wax philosophical, “Your kind believed themselves the ultimate hunters. Bent nature to your whim. Placed yourselves above it. Then, the Zelphods appeared. You were still on top, you thought, because they were generations removed from the creatures that had begun the millennia-long exodus.” Snow finally met Simon’s eyes again, “But when those creatures you’d thought so flexible once more became a threat, you did the only thing you could; made peace for fear of destruction.”

Simon watched the Wolf’s glare. The Magma in his throat burst, made his voice crack, fade, “Coexistence is the only logical solution.”

“So it would seem,” Snow replied with a half-squint. “To one who’s only other option is annihilation.”

Niala interjected, “Can we focus on the issue at-hand?”

Snow replied with malice, “Oh domess, but it is the issue at-hand, don’t you see? His people run the Federation, the economies, the colonies, the construction companies, and everything else in between and around. What they don’t directly control, they do so vicariously through money or sympathizers.”

Niala fumed, “This isn’t productive. You’re just baiting us. There’s no reason to–”

“Shut up, traitor!” Snow barked. “You only refuse to see the truth. You’re a sympathizer, like the rest. Right now, it’s keeping you from understanding all the seemingly illogical moves made.” Simon and Niala exchanged a confused look. Snow took pleasure in enlightening them, “The ISC theft is only the first step in removing the Human issue. Research will continue. One day, it will be business as usual. Increased security, new locks on the doors, but the memory will fade. As it does, more facets will be infiltrated– facets of the HAA, the Federation, the ISC and elsewhere. Just as there, everything will be subject to intrusion and manipulation, by those few, well-placed agents.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Niala spat.

“Is it? Or is it so clever you fear its truth? So obvious it is hidden in plain sight?” He let the thought sink in a moment. “You see, Niala, Humans make the policies. They recruit the employees. Pay them. They have the say-so. All of it is done under the guise of a pre-existing infrastructure built before our kind’s rise. But it is a system without room for us. Not really. It has begrudgingly given us a choice to fit in or wither and die without it.” The holo-screen’s flickering came to a stop. “And that is why they’re doing this. Nothing has changed. Soon, it will.”

He pulled the disk from his chair, then rose. The beam of light disappeared and he stepped off the throne’s raised platform. He straightened with a backward flex, “I will help you, but only because there is gain in it for me. It is here, as much a threat to my domain as yours. But do not mistake my aid for anything more than repayment of a debt.”

Niala gave a small nod. Snow pushed between the pair, stalked past Rearden behind them, and out the door. They exchanged a curious look, both of their thoughts locked on his lecture. Regardless of his point, the theft’s goal was obvious now. Somehow, in someway, it would be used to displace the current powers, put the Humans lower. The why was simple enough. To have any hope of discovering the how, they’d have to follow Snow.

Simon started forward.

15.

The lower levels of Ganymede’s space-port were more like ground-levels. Here were actual planetary features that rose and fell around the station’s lowest reaches. Simon could even see where the atmosphere radiated from; huge turbines and vats the size of skyscrapers loomed in the distance. At their peaks and mid-sections, bright lights pulsed every few seconds to alert passing craft.

Much to Simon’s dismay Snow was on-point. The trio was now accompanied by a Wolf with a blood-thirsty vengeance. It rolled off him like steam, stained the air hatred and determination. Niala followed him single-file, her gown’s hood displaced by artificial winds from chemical vats that mixed perchlorates in a exothermic reaction, created oxygen.

The massive vats and turbines were only one part of the process, but their proximity made for gale-force winds that even Rearden struggled against. They seemed to gust harder every few seconds, then sink back to an idle torrent before starting again.

Simon shouted, an act he was certain he could only do once, “Where are we going?”

“Save your voice, Human,” the Wolf howled back. “You’ll need it to scream when the MeLon gets you.”

Niala glared at the back of Snow’s head, “It’s a valid question.”

Snow swiveled on the pads of his massive hind-paws, pulled Niala closer. She readied to fight, but he pointed off in the distance; “Beyond that ridge are the ice-mines. If the surveillance feeds are correct, your doppelganger is there.”

“Why would they hide in an ice-mine?” She asked over an especially loud gust.

“They’re completely autonomous. No surveillance. All equipment is connected via Ganymede’s control center above. If a MeLon is anywhere on this planet, it is there.” Niala gave a small nod. She stared at the distant ridge in thought. “Now, move. We’re wasting time.”

Niala stormed past with a quiet growl. She took point, Snow now enough paces behind to be out of ear-shot. He stepped beside Simon, “Human, you show compassion and determination. Most would see that as weakness.”

Simon grated angrily against a burning throat, “Your point?”

“Your loyalty to the Lion may be absolute, but trust that hers is not.”

“I don’t. Believe you,” he managed with visible difficulty.

“I don’t care. Know only not to trust in those who would sacrifice others for themselves.”

Snow quickened his pace, bridged the gap between them and Niala. He left Simon fighting the winds as he attempted to decode the cryptic warning. Ceres. But what about? Evidently she’d sacrificed someone for herself. How was that relevant?

It wasn’t, he decided. Merely just another attempt by the Wolf to manipulate those around him. For whatever reason, he didn’t want Niala to be seen as honorable, trustworthy. It made him all the less trustworthy instead.

Niala led the pack through the largely desolate landscape for nearly an hour. All that time, the ridge inched nearer until it loomed over-head like the station, only more jagged, organic. Snow informed them an entrance to the caverns would be hidden in the rock-face, difficult to pin-point until they stumbled into it.

If Niala knew anything about Snow, it was his resourceful relentlessness. No doubt he’d long ago sent teams to map the entirety of Ganymede’s surface in greater detail than even the planetary scanners. Those things tended to use echolocation software that often left geographical features as massive, solid blocks. Snow knew better than most though that this wasn’t the way geography worked. His people had come from caves, dens, lairs of naturally-carved stone otherwise invisible to software. His mapping was likely as much for credits as for the establishment of a refuge. If that was true, he knew exactly where they were headed. The Ice mines would’ve had a definitive entrance, sure, but no-one would use it if they were trying to hide. They’d go in the back-door, so to speak.

When the pack finally reached the ridge-line, Snow was quick to pinpoint the cavern’s entrance. An outcrop of thick ice emanated steam in the unnatural atmosphere. Snow slipped left of the outcrop, then edged right and disappeared in a curious optical illusion. Niala glanced back at Simon who’d watched with curious brows.

She reassured him with a look, disappeared as Snow had. Rearden and Simon followed, the little bot seemingly the more nervous of the two. For his primitive, optical sensors it was likely a leap of faith; to it there was nothing there. Without the brain to decode the opening’s presence, it was left only to trust in its companions. They entered a darkened tunnel that reverberated their footsteps, the sounds muffled by the fish-bowl effect the winds had caused.

Snow engaged a series of LEDs built into his armor, “Don’t touch the walls.”

Rearden added to the lights’ intensity with its optical sensor. The beam splayed over the narrow ice-walls, scanned forward through rolling ice-smoke.

“Ammonia,” Niala said.

Simon spoke with half-pauses, “Are. You sure. This is safe?”

“If you don’t touch the ice,” Snow grumbled.

“I mean. Breathing it,” Simon reiterated.

“You know a better way to the mines undetected?” There was silence. “Then shut up. The more you speak the more you inhale.”

Simon covered his mouth, breathed through a jacket sleeve. They followed the tunnel down a long, shallow decline. Snow and Rearden’s lights cut ahead near a hundred meters, endlessly illuminating the tunnel ahead. When it finally stopped, opened up, the group halted, killed their lights.

The Wolf inched in a crouch toward the opening, gestured the others up with a wave. Niala and Simon lined up beside Snow, careful of the walls. Beyond them shapes took focus, and the two scientists stared, eyes wide and mouths open.

Short Story: All in a Day’s Work

It was dark, dank. The whole place had a smell of mold and mildew. It was just like the places she’d hung around in her youth; abandoned basements with random, leaky pipes. The only difference was that she was above ground. A few hundred feet above it, actually. She wasn’t even sure what the hell could leak from this old junker. All she knew was that it was, and it felt more homely for it.

Izzy Merritt was twenty. She had all the markings of someone her age who’d lived with the streets and shadows as their home. Her brown dreadlocks, streaked with rainbow highlights, bore bone clasps and pipes interwoven with neutral colors. They accented the other, random objects like dyed feathers and random hemp twine. Enough piercings covered her face and ears for them to glint silver in passing, but not enough that any competed for view-time.

Her body bore the eccentricities of youth and street living too; rail-thin, almost emaciated. A sinuous strength said it spent as much time running from corps and cops as swaying to hypnotic trance beats. It had even infected her walk with a saunter that seemed crafted to tease and tantalize. Most would have called her a free spirit, though some derisively. Izzy, on the other hand, knew that was bullshit.

There was no such thing as freedom anymore. Not really. Either you fought the system, or it swallowed you whole. If there was anything Izzy was, it was a fighter. Maybe not physically, though she could hold her own, survive, but mentally. Brain-over-brawn attacks were just as effective, more so even, provided you knew what you were doing. At that, Izzy sure as hell knew what she was doing.

She presently stood in the bridge of a mostly hollowed-out freighter. Its gnarled corpse of steel and rust had come to rest in an ancient Tokyo harbor. CRTs for radar and informatics displays were still present in the place, despite being out of use for decades. Back in the day, they’d kept the ship on course or from running into others. Now they sat beneath layers of dust, puddles, and trash, as unused as any of the old gear like them. It was obvious the ship hadn’t run in decades.

Izzy figured as much. It was barely standing. It only remained above water because, aside from being taller than the harbor’s modest depth, it had come to a rest at a slight angle. Curiously enough, though it had been scrapped from roughly the mid-point to the stern, it remained sound enough to host a little street kid and her tech without much grief. She sensed she’d found something, if not permanent, temporary enough to call home.

The Bridge’s slight angle meant any thing cylindrical would roll away. She circumvented the issue by laying out her sleeping bag against the rear of a console. Ahead was another, but with enough space between them that she could lay out her bag and gear without issue.

She sat down, tattered backpack before her. She had a place to live now. Tokyo had been unforgiving lately, but it seemed karma was coming ’round to make her even again. Or at least, it would until she finished what she was about to do.

She dug through her pack for a laptop, set it on her lap. The odd protuberance of the battery in the rear bulged out awkwardly. The solar cell collector she’d installed was one of her own design, the battery it serviced even more-so. She’d created both to get around never having power outlets to jack into. The design and juice was more than ample, especially for what she was about to do.

She pulled up a list of net connections nearby, ran a brute-force software crack she’d designed. Thanks to the years of rising security, a WEP-key wasn’t difficult to crack anymore. Not for someone with a program like this. A command prompt opened, spooled out thousands of lines of code with each blink.

She pulled out a bag of Tokyo Cheeba to roll a joint and pass the time. Grass was easy to find now that most of the world had legalized it. Japan was still a ways behind in that regard, but it didn’t stop smugglers, traders, or everyday tourists from bringing the stuff in by the truck-full. It also made it easy for a street-kid to do five minutes of work, make it look like thirty, and walk away with a few ounces as payment for a job well done.

She sparked up the joint as the program cracked the WEP-key. The computer icon winked in the upper corner of her OS with a notification, “net connection complete on secure uplink: The Varden.”

It was one of the nearby freighters. She couldn’t say which, but calling a net connection something like that was what people hosting public access points did. “The this” or “the that,” or corp-name “guest network–” Things that only made them easier targets.

“Whatever,” she muttered for no reason in particular.

Her thoughts had been hectic lately, especially given her last “home” had been raided. She wasn’t the only one squatting there. In fact, she was one of a few dozen. Some asshole though, had got it in his head to mess with the Yakuza. Instead of just killing the guy outright, they’d sent in their corporate-security. Everyone scattered, scrambled for freedom– or rather, just fled. Some were gunned down. Others were arrested, printed, charged, and wouldn’t see daylight outside a corp-prison’s grounds for another twenty years, if ever.

She pulled up a pair of web browsers side-by side, fished a sheet of old-fashioned paper out of her pack. A list of numbers and words were scrawled on it, neatly spaced. With a series of quick clicks, she brought up logins for administrators of each of the sites. The banks would never know what happened. Her IP was masked, her MAC non-existent, and everything else identifying her a forged or stolen credential.

She flitted over to one window, keyed in an account number, then transferred a few thousand bitcoins into an account she’d memorized. She closed the window, repeated the process with the next, then closed it too. She slotted a chip into a reader on one side of the laptop, then keyed in a few commands on a prompt.

A few lines of code made a rubric with account numbers to one side, “transfer” in the middle, and a bit-currency amount to the right. The account balance below them read, “10,000;” somewhere around $500,000, if the US economy had ever survived.

She took a deep hit off her joint, shut the laptop, and kicked back. The banks could never trace the encryption on her bit-currency account– or any bit-currency account for that matter. That was the point. The black market functioned solely on that encryption, and there were a hell of a lot more people who wanted it that way than didn’t. Didn’t matter if they were on the corp’s side or not, bit-currency was here to stay, and so was the encryption.

She relaxed with a long exhale, felt the stoned haze descend. She gazed up at the dusty, dripping room, “It’ll work. With some new décor, anyhow.”

She laughed to herself. She could afford to buy a ship brand new now. But she wasn’t stupid. She wouldn’t blow all the creds at once.

She took another deep hit, exhaled slow, “All in a day’s work.”