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.

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.

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.”