Short Story: Break Out

Panther crouched at the edge of a rise overlooking a large military compound. The place was little more than a sea of tents and heavy vehicles with a lone modular building slapped together at its center. The tents encompassed it on all sides, as if some god-like shrine and they its prostrating disciples. It made her sick to look at; so many were force-fed corporate lies and thanked them for it.

Panther’s optical augments shifted the contrast of the images flowing through her eyes to highlight the compound’s details. Patrols of two trudged along the three, nearest perimeters that formed one half of an overall fence-line. Panther’s heads-up-display highlighted the patrolling guards in opaque red, analyzing each one with minute text-windows of everything from height and weight to their ever-changing trajectory.

Across the wet-gleam of the asphalt grounds, more patrols made perpendicular paths through the tents winding to form a shifting, full-coverage net across the compound. The HUD recorded the paths with faint, red lines overlaid on the terrain. Overhead, drones filled the gaps between patrols with optical sensors and a near-silent whir of electric props. Their dual 10mm cannons sat on standby, ready to spin up and litter soft targets with hell-fire.

The drones would be the easiest part. They were stupid, guided by subroutines and out of combat mode until operators or officers designated otherwise. People were more difficult. Apart from the patrols, Panther knew, a few hundred soldiers were hidden in the tents between her and the modular building. It didn’t change the fact that she had to make it to the building. Ion was waiting, probably under duress, and no doubt weak from torture. Getting out would be hardest, but if forced to stay, Ion would be dead before sun-up.

She and Nix had been caught in a fire-fight while trying to liberate some refugee supplies held hostage by the military. They wanted anyone not touting the corporate line turned in. For refugees coming from a corp war-zone, that was just about everyone; brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. It wasn’t going to happen. The military knew that, decided to starve the refugees out. Panther and the others had more humane ideas, and sent Nix and Ion to retrieve the supplies while they created a distraction.

Needless to say, things didn’t go as planned– actually, they went completely fucking sideways. The end result was Nix dead and Ion in the hands of the military, receiving the same treatment refugee-dissenters would. Now Panther had no choice but to go in, get her sister, and hope they both got out alive. The alternative was certain torture and a public execution to make an example out of any “resistance.”

With all of the information gathered to her HUD, Panther slipped down the hill-side for the compound’s barriers. Invisible laser-fences had posts every twenty or so feet and were spaced evenly enough that getting to one would be easy. Panther reached one, pried open a few of the sensor-control panels, and began fiddling with the wires. Beside her, the invisible lasers were green on her HUD, crisscrossed and formed like chain-link, but unscalable without the right augs.

She didn’t have the augs required for jumping the fence– nor the more upscale ones that allowed one to walk-straight through without setting them off. She did have razor-sharp, carbon-fiber nails though, and an augged hand willing to use them to strip and splice wires. She shorted the connection on a power distributor, knowing no-one would notice the breach before she was long gone. The fence itself wouldn’t read the failed parts, and only a visual inspection with the right eyes or visor-settings would reveal the sabotage. She slipped past for the shadows of a tent’s rear-sheet. Sounds of a couple of soldiers fuck-grunting emitted from within.

“Great,” Panther thought. “More meat for the grinder– might as well fuck and get it over with now, take advantage of that corp health-plan before it’s gone.”

She followed inactive, red-lines on her HUD toward the front of the compound. Voices of laughter or low conversations marked the sides of each tent as she dodged and weaved to stay hidden. By the time she reached the last set of tents, her heart was racing. Neuro-transmitters were flooding her body with adrenaline, making it hard to think. A mental activation of endorphins and serotonin slowed her heart to a crawl, her mind and body now completely at-ease with the task at hand.

She glanced along the line of tents, then hurried for the door of the modular building. There’d no doubt be surveillance inside– security, drones, all manner of things to contend with. She was ready. It was now or never. Feline agility sped her body into the building. Micro-speakers implanted in her augged arm emitted inaudible, digital noise, jamming audio and visual equipment. Two guards were startled to their feet at her entrance.

A subsonic pistol in Panther’s left-hand dropped one. A razor-sharp sword in her right, cut the other guard’s throat. Her body followed through. Alarms began to scream. Guards poured in from various corridors. The click of the subsonic pistol accented metallic slicing as she moved like a ballerina, painting abstracts of blood and brain matter across the room.

She pirouetted, grande jete, a bladed boot slicing flesh as her arm made plunging motions and the pistol kept time. She came to a stop at the far-side of the entryway, blade wet and pistol empty. Bodies fell this way and that, creating water-falls of blood through the grated floor.

She didn’t need to survey to carnage to know it was total. Her left hand worked to drop a mag, and slap in a new one. A moment later she speed-walked through a door, body stiff, determined. A few men and women turned, one-by-one. The click of the pistol laid each of them out.

The room was filled with invisible barrier-fences, like the perimeter’s, to contain the various prisoners. The room was empty, save a lone, huddled figure in a corner cell. The poor creature rocked back and forth on his haunches, completely unresponsive to Panther’s approach. She ignored it; Ion didn’t need to do anything more than continue breathing, she’d do the rest.

She punched her way into the barrier’s control panel, shredding faux-skin off her metallic hand, then gripped a handful of wire. Sparks rained from the panel with a whiff of smoke. Panther ignored it, hurried to lift her sister off the floor. Ion’s eyes were glazed over, her face bruised and bloody. She stared vacantly, too drugged and traumatized to comprehend the situation. She opened her mouth to speak, revealed a missing tooth and a few, chipped others.

“Don’t. I’m getting you out.”

She timed her exfil carefully; made it back out the building’s door before anyone knew what had happened inside. Her HUD warned of impending patrols, allowed her to duck back and narrowly avoid a pair of men crossing her path. Moments later, the two were at the downed fence-line. A pair of soldiers examined the pole there, evidently aware it’d been breached.

“Can you walk?” Panther whispered.

Ion gave a noncommittal shrug, found her feet. Two clicks splattered blood across helmet-visors and asphalt. The pair hurried through, Ion limp-sprinting on pure adrenaline. Neither of the sisters was sure how she made it up the hill. At its crest, she fell stumbled, fell, slid the rest of the way down.

A black van waited beside the hill’s terminus, its doors open on familiar faces that forced Ion to tear up. She fell into the arms of Nix’s brother, as Panther hopped in. The doors shut and the van’s electric engine gave a silent start, compelled it forward over the crunch of small twigs and gravel.

In the front seat, Panther’s ex-boyfriend and second in command, Delta, glanced over; “Everything alright?”

“Five-by-Five,” she said with a hint of scorn. “No-one’s going to take my sister from me.”

“Sibling love. Almost as powerful as sibling rivalry.” He glanced over again, “Just not as, you know, bloody.”

She thought of the bodies, “Depends on the siblings.”

Delta gave a laugh and drove on through the darkness.

Short Story: A New Age Begins

It would be the first in the next-generation of prosthetic That was how everyone at Cameron Mobility Incorporated saw it. They’d been designing prosthetic devices since the 1940s; from an old man’s scrap wood in a garage, to the custom fitted, laser-cut, hand-assembled metals and plastics of billion dollar industry. Needless to say, the precision-engineered chrome and carbon-fiber had come a long way from the whittled bits of wood Arnold Cameron had first created for his son.

The company hadn’t operated out of a garage in nearly a century, from any one location in decades. The global enterprise had been built on a foundation of one man’s dream and hope for his son. When Arnold died in the late 1980’s, that son stepped into the role of overseer, both poster-child and client from a childhood accident, he took the company public with an image bolstered by his company-replaced right arm and leg.

Public-trading brought investors, stocks, money as the prosthetics became more complex, more specialized, elegant, elaborate. Sturdy, proto-plastics, later replaced again by fully articulated poly-alloys and carbon-fiber “joint and bone” designs.
The heir to the fortune fell ill, forcing his daughter to replace him as head of the company. That was when everything changed– for better or worse was merely dependent on one’s view-point. The company’s stock plunged until measures were taken to secure its future. What those measures were, only one fluent in legalese and corporate intimacies might say. All the world knew was that Cameron Mobility was suddenly growing again, and to new heights.

But until the forth generation Cameron sat on the board of directors, nothing truly astonishing took place. Evelyn Cameron changed that. Like her mother, Evelyn was a trail-blazer, but also a certified genius with a hands-on approach to research and development. On top of her duties as jet-setting business woman, she worked long nights with engineers and technicians in the labs, designing what would come to be known as the most revolutionary prosthetics known to man.

And so, when the culmination of four generations of eager, forward-minded Cameron men and women– and the collaborative toiling of Evelyn and her R&D team– finally came to fruition, they stood at-the-ready for mass production. Their factories in Taiwan and China had already received the plans, and if all went as Evelyn hoped, in a matter of hours the first line in bionic, augmentation prosthetics would be manufactured.

There were already whispers of elective surgeries– voluntary amputations for augmented replacements that would be stronger, tougher, sleeker than human parts. A new black market was ready to form, both around the sale and installation of the new “augs.” No matter the repercussions, there was no doubt this was a new-age. Augs were not just prosthetics, replacements for those poor souls who’d lost part of themselves. Now, they were true to life upgrades, the next step in man’s apex-predatory nature that would see the food-chain and natural evolution forever left behind.

Evelyn and her team had one philosophy; why just return function when it could also be augmented? A decade of research centered on thought-controlled interfaces, superalloys, and miniaturized hydraulics, came next. Then, another five years of prototype construction and programming trial and error that resulted in a line of limb prosthetics that, when installed and routed to the brain via wireless, neural-controllers, exceeded anything an evolved creature could hope to sport.

Everyone had heard the talking heads on Info-Corp’s pseudo-news entertainment channel debating augment-ethics. Most learned people saw them as spouting uneducated nonsense. Evelyn agreed. She’d nearly plunged her company into the red, but somehow retained investor confidence. The rumors spreading of her receiving a Nobel prize didn’t hurt, and were she in any other position, she might have argued them. Instead, she remained silent, watched them bolster investor confidence and keep the money flowing.

She stood now before her first, real test subject. The factories in Taiwan and China were poised for a sprinting run on the first, mass-production line of augs. The man before Evelyn wasn’t someone who’d lost their limbs in an accident, or been born with a corrupted genome and no limb. He was an elective, someone willing to replace limbs with Cameron Mobility’s newest augments.

Evelyn chewed at the tip of her thumb behind a pair of windows. The small observation corridor looked out on the muscled, naked body of the subject. Chrome and carbon fiber rippled from his torso where his limbs should be, as if someone had taken his flesh-less arms and legs, dipped them in steel and carbon-fiber, then replaced the muscles and tendons with criss-crossed mini-hydraulics, actuators, servos, and good, old-fashioned tongue-and-groove gears.

Around him, were masked and suited doctors who’d entered through a clean room. A nurse appeared, wheeling a cart of metal panels and Allen-wrenches. The doctors took places around the body to fit the panels over the augments to hide and protect their innards. For what seemed like hours, but was only moments, they worked the wrenches along bolts. When they stepped away again, the carbon-fiber panels had given the man an intimidating patchwork and a futuristic gleam.

All but one doctor left, the nurse with them. The last prodded the naked man’s neck with a needle, set it aside on the cart. Evelyn waited, breath held. She’d was dimly aware of her team beside and behind her, lined up along the windows in silence. She sensed their own refusal to breathe through the unnatural stillness of the corridor.

The man’s eyes flickered open. The group leaned forward in expectation. He blinked hard, as if waking from a pained sleep, and sat up on an elbow to rub his eyes. The corridor echoed with a half-dozen gasps as the doctor’s mouth moved in silence from the sound-proof room. Evelyn knew from protocol he was being questioned for residual pain.

The man sat up, back to the group, as the doctor carried out a physical exam. After a minute or so, the doctor stepped to the side with a thumbs up. The corridor exploded in cheers, congratulations. The team shook hands, hugged. Someone patted Evelyn’s shoulder and she deflated into her exhaustion.

The truth was, she’d never known if it would really work. Not when it came time to test it. Now, Taiwan and China could begin manufacturing, and in a matter of days, the first augs would ship to awaiting patients and electives. Only then could they know of blow-back from the masses, if any. As the others celebrated around her, she thought rationally; more testing was needed, as was careful monitoring. The man needed to be watched for signs of rejection or other, unpredictable complications.

Time would come to remember those feelings as only footnotes, but even then there was no doubt; a new age had begun.

Short Story: One Glaring Flaw

A shadow flitted across the dim-light of a weakened streetlamp. The alley just past it buzzed from a lone, industrial-grade light that flickered with a damaged filament. Heavy steel gleamed beneath it; the door to an otherwise nondescript hole in the wall. Most places like this saw little more than junkies or homeless squatters looking for shelter from the elements or “buzz-killers.”

This place was different though. From the outside it had all the makings of a normal, dive, hole in the wall. The piss-smell from stray cats and dogs and the occasional drunkard, mingled with the over-powering trash from a dumpster always a week-past full. It had all the charm of a stale ashtray filled with pork fat and soggy butts.

At least, that was the vague image Rotter had as he was escorted toward the door. He was flanked by a man at his left and a woman at his right. Both were decked out in the latest synth-skin cybernetic augments. He couldn’t see them, but he could tell.

Not many people knew what to look for when checking for augs. They looked at the broader parts of the arms, where the skin was most easily molded to the curved augments. Rotter, on the other hand, always checked the smaller areas– crooks of the elbow, webbing on the fingers, inside palm near the knuckles. They all told the real story. The skin there stretched an unnatural white, no blood to flood it with color there and subtle, misshapen angles that were glaring to a trained eye.

Sometimes he didn’t understand why people paid good money for bad work. Then again, that was the story of his life. Get rich quick had always come with “walk in the park” or “piece of cake.” It all meant the same thing; some dumb asshole was posturing when he should’ve been planning, boasting instead of thinking. He’d been screwed more times than he could count, and mostly on jobs where the lead was the aforementioned. Rotter had never run a bad crew, and it was time that he stop playing games and get serious.

There was just one problem. One stupid problem. Of course he had to have that one defect to keep him from greatness, make him look more crazy than respectable. That one thing also had only one solution, something he’d wrestled with for years now. He needed an augment. A neural one.

He’d never much liked the idea of augments. It was less prejudice than the feeling of cheating. If a creature couldn’t get by on its natural adaptations then it wasn’t supposed to survive. Rule of nature. Irrefutable law. Universal Constant. That’s what survival of the fittest was. Darwin may not have had augs to tie into that equation all those centuries ago, but Rotter had it now, and he had trouble reconciling the two.

The fact was, he needed the neural augment. So he walked, in-step with his escort, along the piss-stinking alley, wondering what kind of numb-nuts built a clinic there. For that matter, how nasty was the place? Moldy walls and bloody gurneys? Pre-augment limbs piled along a wall attracting flies? Or did they at least have the decency to bleach the place?

They entered the metal door to a small room. It was more a storage closet than anything– and a stinking one at that. The walls were soot-covered, blackened from some unholy growth along them. Rotter suppressed a dry-heave. The man perpetually at his left chuckled to himself. The woman placed a hand on his shoulder for comfort. The movement was intentionally light, he sensed. It had to be with the weight of the aug. It churned his stomach all the same.

He was about to speak when air rushed from the ceiling. It sucked at the trio’s long coats and attempted to pull Rotter’s skin off his bones. He was grateful when it stopped and the wall ahead slid sideways in all its unholy glory. Rotter was momentarily blinded by a super-bright, white-light.

He waited for it to abate, but paneled walls of an elevator sharpened whiteness. His escort ushered him in, then took their places beside him. The woman spoke a command and a synthetic voice confirmed her identity. A moment later the doors parted to a hallway matching the bright-white, paneled elevator. The whole place screamed minimalism as if it were going out of fashion and it lamented the idea.

Sleek chrome and brushed stainless-steel formed the furniture and fixtures along the walls and floors. A few people came and went with the same, sterile bustle as a high-tech corp hospital. Rotter was staggered. He took a moment to recollect his wits. Given what he’d expected, this was a dream. He suddenly found his faith in his companions and their doctor-boss renewed.

The whole rest of the procedure was a blur. Rotter met with face after face of smiling, friendly people. They were almost perfect looking, save the obvious rigors of life that could defeat even the most expertly applied make-up. At that, all the women were still beautiful and the men refined to look their level-best. When Rotter met with the doctor, he was still staggered, barely able to speak.

How could this place exist? Let alone beneath ground and with an entrance so vile and forbidding? He wasn’t sure, but he liked the cunning of the architect. It was so unappealing it hid in plain-sight.

The doctor went over the procedure and Rotter’s uneasiness ebbed in enough to displace his fascination. His one, glaring flaw was heavy in his mind again.

“We’ll fix that,” the doctor said cheerfully. He had a sort of urgent professionalism that oozed a notion of “too little time, too much to do.”

“So you’re telling me they’ll stop, and my eye will work right again?” Rotter asked carefully, not wanting too much false hope to gather.

However pressed for time, the doctor remained cordial. He smiled wide at Rotter. “Your eye will work better than before. Both of them, in fact. And as for the neural rewire and bios upgrade, you’ll never hear the voices again.”

“Never?” Rotter asked, with a fearsome thirst.

The doctor stepped around his desk then sat in a lean against it, just in front of Rotter. “I can give you a solemn vow. You’ll never hear the voices again, and your eyes will work better than they ever could naturally. You’ll have to adjust to the HUD, but I assure you it won’t take any time at all. If there’s ever a problem, no matter how big or small, I will fix it personally. No charge.”

Rotter was once more amazed. “Th-thank you, doctor.”

“My pleasure.”

With that, the pair that had escorted Rotter in, escorted him out and through the facility to a lone “guest room.” It was more like a palatial suite at a high-roller casino. He felt like aristocracy. Indeed, even for a quarter-mil in credits, it was a steal– a glimpse into luxury he might otherwise never see. The pair stayed with in the room until the time came. The woman promised to observe his procedure, then later return to ensure he recovered properly.

This was the point of the room. All patients needed to be closely monitored for augment-based rejection. In some cases, the nervous system would not take to the augments, causing misfires in the cybernetics ranging from random muscle twitches to full-on hallucinations. Thankfully, most of those causes had been weeded out or accounted for enough to be avoided.

Before Rotter knew it, he was being prepped for surgery. He hadn’t eaten in almost two-full days, but it would be worth it. To their credit, his two companions never left his side, though they also seemed never to interact. He guessed it was a professional thing. Bodyguards couldn’t allow themselves to get attached, especially to one another. He knew that from guys he’d worked with. Apparently it affected their work too much.

The woman gave him an injection as he lie back on his bed. She soothed him with an explanation while the man stood a little to the side. He gave an amused and speechless wave goodnight. Rotter’s eyes fluttered and shut.

When they opened again, Rotter was once more in the bed. His head throbbed, and he felt IVs feeding his arms. Something beeped. Then, endorphins and painkillers flooded him. He gave a euphoric sigh and the woman sat beside him. She pulled one leg onto the bed in a cross, the other hanging off it, and fed him water from a straw.

He sipped cold relief, “Thank you.” He glanced around the room. “Where’s the other one?”

She eyed him carefully, “Other one?”

He took another, long sip, “Your friend. The guy that came with us.”

She shook her head sternly, “We’ve been alone since we me, Rotter. I don’t–”

Realization dawned on both of their faces. Rotter reddened in embarrassment, but it was quickly replaced by relief.

Tears filled his eyes, “Th-that means…”

“The voices are gone,” she finished.

His mouth quivered with emotion. He thanked her. Truth was, he probably had more than a few flaws, but none were so glaring as his mental one. A defect in his genetics had caused a type of atypical schizophrenia. It hadn’t presented until later in life, and by now was so far progressed he’d wounded himself in the midst of one of its hallucinations. His eye had been blind a decade, and anyone that worked with him knew how it had gotten there.

She handed over a mirror and he looked himself over. Where once that glaring flaw had been evident in his blinded, right eye, now only the smallest hint of a scar remained near the eyebrow. His eye was its natural blue, faint, electric blue around its rim from the recently-installed HUD.

He couldn’t think, couldn’t believe it; his one, glaring flaw, gone. He fell into her lap and wept with gratitude.

Short Story: Sprawl Life

They strolled down one of the sprawl’s side-streets. It was a typical city image; neon signs and LED billboards atop shades of gray that afflicted your teeth with the tastes of grit, gravel and sand. Her natural, left arm was linked in his right, cybernetic one. He’d elected to have it to harness the advanced tech and its strength. He was already built like a Mack truck, and hit like one too, but the fresh chrome and carbon fiber completed the look. Taking the street-name Mack didn’t hurt either.

Conversely, she looked as intimidating as the moniker she’d taken on. Rabbit wasn’t sure whether she loved or hated Mack, but walked arm in arm with him all the same. She did it with a saunter that accented a tight ass in even tighter leather pants. They matched Mack’s leather biker jacket, its chrome zippers identical to the glints of silver in her nose, lip, and ears. The only thing that made them stick out like a sore thumb was Rabbit’s hair; shaved clean on one side with the other a wave of bangs and electric-blue.

A few cars whizzed past spewing exhaust– old, manual things. The new auto vehicles weren’t common around these parts, unless you counted vans with massive corp-logos emblazoned on their sides. Corps or cops, same problem in a different wrapper.

Rabbit steered Mack into a diner. It was as ancient as the waitress that came to take their order. The owner seemed to have made it a point not to let the place get cleaned. It had a retro, 1950s feel, beneath a layer of vintage dirt and grime worse than the street’s.

Mack stared out a window from a booth while they waited for their bacon and eggs. The place may’ve been a pit, but it was one of the few that could still get their hands on the real thing. Rabbit had even speculated the owner raised and slaughtered his own pigs. Judging by the floors and walls, it wasn’t that wild a theory.

Outside the sun peeked through deep, dark clouds, then immediately hid away again. The first of the rain came down immediately after. Buckets poured beneath their mutual silence. It wasn’t for lack of words, but rather protection form the hellish hangovers they both had. Any sound made their heads echo like chasms. Only the place’s paint-thinning coffee could force away the pain. At least usually anyhow, today seemed like a different story.

Rabbit was half-way through her second cup when she realized something about the day was off. It was one of those gut-feelings that said it was best to crawl back into bed, pull the mylar covers over her head, and hide.

She couldn’t though. There was a lot to be done. She’d probably see the sunrise again before it was all over– or at least what counted for one. Sprawl-life was like that, there wasn’t sun, just smog and rain. Even if there had been sun, she still wouldn’t see it beyond the sporadic times she ended up in the diner, with or without Mack.

Once breakfast was finished, the waitress ambled over with her aged gait, poured one last cup of coffee for each of them. She tore the check from a yellowed pad, slid it across the table, and returned to the bar-counter across the diner. The woman stood sentinel at the register, unmoving until Rabbit approached moments later, one cup of coffee fuller. She waved a USB stick over the RF reader, verified her various bank account details. The reader was old enough to have retained a debit card slot, but read the cred-stick without hassle. Bit currency was a God-send, especially for miscreants like her.

Mack met her at the door. They stepped out to smoke. Rain still poured down, splattered their sneakers as they nestled against the building’s front beneath its awning. Rabbit deliberately leaned against the “no smoking within 8 feet” sign, and let the rain draw her mind along with its polyrhythms. There was a definite sprawl-way to the rain. It wasn’t like in the rural areas– if there technically were any anymore– the wind didn’t hit the city the same way so the rain developed its own way of falling. It always seemed to have polyrhythms and rests with distant, syncopated drumming behind it.

Rabbit sympathized. Life here was all about falling gracefully, hitting the ground as softly as possible, or with both feet and running, whichever was needed.

An old-era Ford thundered to a squealing stop in front of them. Three guys got out, tatted up where they weren’t gleaming with chrome, carbon-fiber, or leather. Rabbit and Mack both watched the last guy in line, who walked with a stiff, left, cyber-arm against an otherwise billowing trench-coat.

The three guys passed Rabbit and Mack without a second look, stepped inside. The two exchanged a glance. They didn’t need the still-running Ford to tell them what was going on. Rabbit gave a heavy sigh, and pulled open the door in dejection. Mack rolled his eyes, stepped in ahead of her.

The moron with the stiff arm now had both locked before him with a sawed-off boomer in them. He shouted at the old lady whom hurriedly transferred creds to a stick in the register.

“Alright,” Mack said with a grim scowl. “Who’s first?”

The guy with the shotgun kept aimed on the woman. One of the other morons spun ’round with an S&W .44 aimed for Mack’s head.

“I wouldn’t do that,” Rabbit warned. “Give the old lay back her cash while you’re at it.”

“The fuck you say blue?” The third moron demanded. He swiveled with a 1911 in-hand.

Rabbit gave Mack a look, then heaved another, colossal sigh, “Alright. Fine. Have it your way.”

Before they could react, Rabbit had the shotgunner on the ground, boomer in hand. She gave a heavy, booted kick to the guy’s head, aimed for the guy with the 1911. Mack unleashed his semi-truck force with a lunge, knocked the S&W wielder out cold. Mack wasn’t sure, but he might’ve given his brain a jolt; blood leaked from an ear and a nostril.

The third guy shook a little. His hand swayed. Rabbit shook her head. His eyes darted between her and Mack. His finger tapped the trigger. The sawed-off boomed. He was dead on the ground, half his guts missing, before he squeezed.

A stray round hit an overhead tile, buit Rabbit tossed Mack the sawed-off, retrieved the two pistols from the dead morons. She nodded to the old lady who’d fallen into a chair behind the counter, shaking and hoping to recover her wits.

“For next time,” Rabbit said casually, sliding the 1911 across the counter. “See you.”

She and Mack left nonchalantly. There was too much to do to hang around. It was all just another day of sprawl-life, nothing special– even if it was her birthday.