Short Story: Think Deeply

The bomb threat at the Oakton Memorial Hospital had been called in by an anonymous tip. Whether or not it was credible, the two-thousand odd doctors, nurses, M-As and other people inside were evacuated. A whole city block was cordoned off. Police blockades re-directed traffic or otherwise halted it whole for two blocks further on all sides. Someone had estimated, if the building went, its parking garages at either side and a few of emptied businesses might go too.

The chaos was already well under way when the Emergency Response Squad arrived. The new-age SWAT team was more an army than a police force, privately funded by many of Oakton’s large corporations to relieve the local, municipal government’s pressures. In truth they were free-agents, authorized to use any and all force necessary to eliminate threats. Unlike police, they were not a government agency, and were free to do any of a number of sordid things– like kill without the petty worries of justice, due process, or the pesky amendments protecting the obviously guilty from being presumed as such.

In short, ERS was everything American Police wished to be with none of the obligations that kept them in check.

ERS was rarely called in, though. OPD didn’t like having its toes stepped on, neither as an entity nor as as individuals comprising that entity. Even so, they couldn’t handle a threat of this nature alone. Recent years of poor press and tension between citzens and the department had festered a growing resentment. Among other things, it kept many would-be peace officers from joining.

OPD gracefully bowed to ERS, this time. In request for aid, containing the situation and keeping panic from spreading, ERS’ crack-squad were sent in. Their ingress across Oakton from its outskirts was unmistakable. They rolled in like an army in freshly armored sleek, blackened APCs with angry looking cannons. The vehicles were all thick, steel-plated angles and cylinders with tires enough to crush even the largest of vehicles that got in their way. Enough of the pseudo-tanks were able to form an impassable wall around the hospital’s entire city-block.

Captain Abraham Logan stepped from an APC. As acting leader of the ERS battalion, he had complete autonomy. His ultra-thin, kevlar and graphene-woven, black uniform and tac-vest gave him all the menace of SWAT combined with the next-gen tech of an army more advanced than the US’s own. The comm-link in his ear was satellite-guided, good for up to a thousand meters under water, or a mile of concrete on all sides. It connected him with ERS dispatch that had twenty-four hour access to public and corporate satellites to monitor situations in real-time.

Equipped with thermographic and night-vision, A-R glasses, Logan could see in the dark while overlaying his GPS-tracked location on a map of the hospital to one side of his vision. In combination with the Explosive Ordinance sniffers embedded in small, microscopic points around his clothing, he was almost singularly useful. His own stubborn will and battlefield experience would keep him and his people alive so long as they listened.

He led his group to the doors, their hi-tech gadgetry enabled and their comm-links active. Their AR glasses even had small cameras to keep ERS-dispatch aware of the teams’ surroundings. They presently showed Logan and his team breaching the facility with expert movements, their voices short, punctual.

“Cut the lights,” Logan ordered through his comm.

An ERS dispatcher, linked to the city’s power grid and the Hospital’s auxiliary generators, did as instructed. The lights went out. Gleaming, sterile white and warm wood paneling turned to dark silhouettes and blackness underfoot. It was almost blinding. The team’s AR glasses faded up their night-vision, and the way ahead was clear– albeit a little more gray-toned than usual. The active sniffers on Logan’s suit tracked scents of plastique and something most certainly lethal, but unidentifiable.

The team moved in sweeping caution, to a stairwell. They burst through its entrance to follow the stairs downward for a basement boiler room. Silence beneath their collective boot-steps sent a chill down their spines. Even Logan, war-hardened as he was, shuddered from the cold. He hid it from his team, led them further down in silence. The E-O trail was hot, as a faint, green line on the AR at their eyes.

They slipped into the bowels of the hospital beyond the stairs, angled for a morgue spanning half the basement. This was where they kept their dead. Everything said it. It was cold, morbid, and overpoweringly sterile smelling. A slightest scent of death though, still remained– as if it could never be scrubbed for its eternally continued presence.

Once more they readied to breach and entered the morgue. The team’s chill shudder returned in full force, caused a pause to their advance. Night-vision revealed steel surfaces of counters, tables, and gurneys both empty and filled across the morgue. Bodies atop them tainted the air further, the stench increasing each second the air warmed from lack of cooling. Even if Logan had given the order to engage the back-up power for the room, he doubted it would undo the odor around them.

He fanned the team out across the room. Behind them the door swung closed with a click. They advanced through the long, wide morgue and autopsy area. Logan followed the AR sniffer trail toward small doors equally spaced along the back wall. Body storage was six high, twenty wide, and according to the faint-outlines on thermal-vision, mostly full.

Logan was too preoccupied with the sniffer trail. It led to a door in the center of the storage unit. He pressed a pair of fingers against a panel there that was still active, likely powered by a back-up battery. Over the course of a minute, the door swung open. An empty tray inched outward. In its center sat a curious looking bomb; tall, wide, but hollow with a glass protrusion atop it. Through it, there was the undeniable stir of vapor mist.

Logan set his rifle aside, reached for the bomb.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” an old-man’s voice echoed over the room. The men and women rubbernecked. “Don’t fret. I’ve been gone a while now. You on the other hand…”

The door they entered from hissed, locked. Ventilation covers snapped shut across the room. All at once, the other hundred-and-nineteen doors on the storage wall opened. The scent of over a hundred bodies doubled the team over, Logan included. A few people passed out, overwhelmed by a mix of Methane and Vomit.

After a few moments of retching, Logan regained his feet, “You sick bastard!

“Death is a funny thing, Captain,” the man’s voice replied over the PA speakers. “It does interesting things to a man. For instance, it causes a reaction of decomposition that, when mixed with bloating, makes one able to literally explode their guts around the room. The problem of course, is that we are dead when we gain this lovely ability.”

“You sick fuck, these are people!” One woman shouted. She sprinted for the door, breath held, tried to pry open it.

“Ah, ah, ah,” the voice said. “You’re locked away, you see. Were I in your position, I’d make peace with that.”

“Fuck you!” Logan shouted. He suppressed a dry-heave.

The man sighed as though a teacher disappointed with his pupil, “Now, now, Captain, we all have to die sometime. As I said, the body does interesting things. One which I have discovered, and which no one else knows but I.”

“Let us out of here you bastard!” The woman screamed as she booted the door.

“No,” the man replied simply. “No, you are to be the statement which reveals my discovery.”

“What the hell are you talking about, psycho?” A man shouted upward at the room.

“You see, I’ve discovered something many men don’t realize they already know about a dead body,” he paused dramatically, as if it meant all the world to his phrasing. “What I’ve discovered, dear friends, is that a body can create a powerful statement after the consciousness inhabiting it leaves.”

“You son of a–”

“And many dead bodies, Captain,” he said without interruption. “Can create a very powerful message.”

“You son of a–”

A sound came from behind Logan. A buzzing that shot up a thousand Hertz to scream with a high-pitch. Two blocks away, the earth jolted and trembled with a nearby explosion. Dirt and debris filled the air. A cloud of smoke and dust covered the distance between ground-zero and the furthest cordoned areas. The shock-wave blew out glass from every window for a mile. Shards rained through Oakton as precipitous drops that fell from the heavens.

When the dust settled, it took two weeks for ERS and OPD to count the dead and injured– most from the effects of the shock-wave. The crater where the hospital had been was kept roped off for months. Various crews worked day and night to restore power, water, and sewage to the effected areas.

Through it all, ERS and the various news outlets worked to locate the man responsible. When the team’s final moments, recorded by ERS’ dispatchers, finally leaked to the web, the world began to speculate. His statement, it seemed, was lost in the tragedy of the moment. That was, until a few amateur sleuths discovered a single phrase whispered in the final half-second of audio.

Buried beneath sounds of methane igniting, bodies being torn asunder, and cement cracking was the man’s voice; “Think Deeply.

The Collective: Part 9

9.

Rude Awakening

The group returned to Tokyo unscathed. Nothing had changed; either the Collective wasn’t sure of the damage done yet, or they were expertly keeping it quiet. Lex guessed the latter. Rachel agreed; it was doubtful anyone in the Collective was willing to admit defeat, let alone when it spelled disaster for the world’s economy. Credits were still good for the moment, despite not being backed by anything hard, but the news would eventually get out.

Containment was one of the few things the Collective hadn’t been able to exert over the Sleepers. Their lives in the virtual worlds were all connected by RSS-feeds, news blotters, chat-logs, forums; information flowed freely through them all. The Collective had learned the hard way long ago that the more one attempted to manipulate its flow, the more pressurized it became. All the same, contingencies would be enacted to keep people from waking, rioting once the news got out. Lex aimed to make any countermeasures pointless.

She and the others were ready to move almost as soon as they reached Tokyo’s limits. The deaths of Steinsson and Andersson would ensure that the final, few members of the Collective were even more heavily-guarded than the last. Without a doubt there’d be whole GSS contingents between the remaining four members of the Collective and Lex’s group.

They were secondary targets now though. The main targets were already sighted, and their last asset was ready to take the playing field. He’d been informed of his duties on return from Switzerland, all relevant information transferred to him. His allegiance had been assured by the murders of Li and Kay before him, the continued deaths of the Collective further ensured he would honor their deal. Regardless, it wouldn’t be long before the Sleepers woke, with or without him.

Lex and the others piled out of the van long enough to eat, rest, and await nightfall. They vacated a hideaway beneath Tokyo’s streets as the last rays of sunshine were snuffed out, gave way to Tokyo’s neon, light-polluted glow.

Lex led the way through alleys toward their destination. Vehicles were too easy to track given their sore-thumbed obviousness on empty streets. They were easily concealed along the surface all the way to the target building; a giant, server-storage site that stole most of the nearby real-estate with an impressive expanse. It looked about as futuristic as it was; all angles with windows that formed an upward curve along two-thirds of its front, ended with the lowest third’s roof. The rest of the building rose like a giant, crystal chrysalis into the sky. If Lex had to guess, she’d have said there were roughly a hundred and twenty floors between the lobby and the roof. At its very top would be her targets.

She split off from Rachel and the others at the rear-entrance. There was an almost mournful look in the latter’s eyes, but both women knew there was nothing to be done about it. Rachel was needed elsewhere and Lex’s assignment was something she needed to do herself.

She stealthed her way through empty, service hallways. The narrow paths cut through the building’s interior to a grand lobby. Granite floors and marble-topped half-circle reception-desk sat beneath a quarter-wall that split the lobby in half, extended sky ward to the crest of the curved windows. The Global Entertainment logo of a wire-frame globe with solid continents stared down.

Lex passed it, careful not to be caught on any of the dozens of cameras around, and skirted the walls for the elevators at the back of the lobby. She stepped inside an elevator to await the signal, watched a small LED screen glow with an animated version of the globe-logo. It flashed to a face and Lex’s eyes narrowed on the man she’d ordered to speak for the Collective.

His Japanese features were obvious, pristine, but he hadn’t been glitzed with make-up– the sweat that gleamed off his face said as much. In fact, Lex knew for certain he was hiding in a hole, broadcasting through a remote up-link the team maintained from a server-room.

He cleared his throat, “On behalf of Global Entertainment, I would like to speak with you, our loyal audience, for a moment.” Japanese subtitles repeated his words in character script as Lex’s jaw tightened. “Two days ago, the final reserves of Platinum and Gold bullion that back our digital currency were destroyed. For those that do not know, it is these reserves that all money is based off. In effect, our entire economy has been eradicated.”

Lex quit listening. By now there would be chaos across the ‘net. The two Collective’s members on-site, heads of tech Kazue Matsuoka and her lover Maja Stroman, would be scrambling to shut down the link, confused as to why they couldn’t. Lex hit a button for the top-floor penthouse. The elevator lurched upward. She was the distraction, meant to buy time to finish the broadcast, enact the final part of their plan.

Lex touched a communicator in her ear, “I’m moving up.”

Rachel looked back at Ryo as he hunched over a keyboard on the edge of a floor-full of servers. He pressed his ear as he worked, “The broadcast is thirty seconds out. I’m hacking the system now. You’ll be the only functioning elevator. There’s a whole contingent in the penthouse. Be ready.”

Lex’s hands clenched into fists, “Just get it done.”

Rachel cast a look between Yang-Lee and Kaz, racked the bolt on a GSS rifle, “Here we go.”

The elevator-doors opened at the penthouse floor. Twelve rifles lit up the insides. For a moment there was nothing but the sounds of sustained fire. Someone shouted something in Japanese, and it stopped. The squad leader pointed to two of his team, sent them in to scour the elevator with a pair of gestures. They inched forward, leaned into their rifles, with rigid bodies. The rifles swept left and right inside, up and down, found nothing. They relaxed in confusion, turned back to face the rest of the squad.

The squad’s arms lowered. A near-silent of metal on fabric swished. Lex’s boots slammed a vent cover atop the elevator. She plunged through, landed blades-out. The swords angled up, stabbed in at the spines of both men. Blood sprayed from punctures as the blades pierced their fronts. Rifles rose again, chattered against Lex’s double-wide meat-shield.

Holes riddled the dead men. The blades propelled them forward. Lex growled, burst from the elevator with a flying leap, flipped up, over the line of armed men and women, landed behind the squad leader. Fire lagged behind, followed, went silent before it killed the commander.

One blade went left, the other right. A pivot turned to a pirouette. A hand followed through. Lex mentally counted down; Eight.

A wide leg sleep, low gravity. Two bodies tumbled, stunned. One more fell from a dual slice across the belly. Seven.

The sweep turned acrobatic. A flying round-house staggered another man. A blade sliced a second’s throat beside him. Six.

She began another landing; a blade cut the calf of a woman. The other plunged up, in, and out her sternum. Five.

A wide, uplifted sweep, lacerated another woman’s torso. Four.

Lex’s legs drew nearer, body upright. The three staggered men began to recover. She whirled with a spin, made circles to aim. A stab inward through the heart of the last man standing, and one on the ground. Two.

With another sweep, and a fluid shift, she kept the last men down. The blades whirled, plunged down through soft bodies. Zero.

She hesitated a moment to control her breath, then ripped the blades out to survey the carnage.

Tell-tale abstracts of blood were painted across the penthouse’s beige walls. Corpses lay where they’d fallen; some atop one other, others sequestered, alone. All were covered in blood. The penthouse’s hardwood-floor was a crimson pool of still-warm blood beneath Lex’s boots. She straightened with a whirl of her blades. Blood flung from the tips as she marched forward along the wide hallway, into a massive, main room that looked out on Tokyo with a bird’s -eye view.

The sight was breathtaking. Tokyo was a glowing jewel of prosperity in an otherwise blackened sea. Lex was compelled toward the windows. She took a few steps to the large, six-person dining table atop a platform. It shined from a lacquer finished that mixed the faint neon of Tokyo with the room’s low sconces on its supports and walls. For a moment, Lex almost regretted what was about to happen. The click of a pistol’s hammer reminded her of its necessity. From the sound, she guessed something German.

“Miss Stroman. Nice of you to join me.” Only the faintest of feet scuffed wood from a corner of the room, “Tell your wife to stay or I kill her before she reaches the elevator.”

The German woman’s hard-angled face sneered, pulled high-lighted hair tighter around her round forehead. Lex didn’t move. Stroman shot a glance sideways, froze her wife with a look, “Your reckoning has arrived, Alexis.”

Lex ignored her, “It really is a beautiful view here at the top.” The German took a few steps forward, angled wide around Lex with the gun on her. “Join us, won’t you Kazue?” The Japanese woman remained frozen. “Very well then.”

Stroman took the platform’s steps one-by-one, settled even with Lex. The gun’s aim was firm, “Whatever you intended to prove ends here.”

Lex’s body remained steadfast. Her eyes swept the multi-colored beauty ahead, “Maybe.” Stroman’s left hand gripped the pistol beneath the right, further steadied her aim. Lex sensed the shift, waited, her eyes on the horizon, “Then again, perhaps I’ve already completed what I set out to do.”

As if flicked by switches, Tokyo’s city-blocks went dark one-by-one. Stroman didn’t notice until the lights went out above her. Kazue spoke from the corner of the room, “Maja!”

She glanced sideways to see the emerging darkness. Lex struck. In one move, she had Stroman by a wrist, gun pointed outward, away. Stroman eyed the blade hilt-deep in her gut. She grit her teeth, bucked back and forth. Kazue gasped, began to sob in the corner.

Maja’s mouth leaked blood, “You… Bitch…”

“The Sleepers are awakening,” Lex said coldly. “In two minutes power will return across the city long enough for an EMP to detonate.” Stroman fought with her last ounces of life against the grip on her wrist. Lex’s hand was firm, “In two and a half minutes, your world will be ours again.”

She ripped the blade from Stroman’s torso. Her body tumbled down the platform’s stairs to the floor. Kazue launched herself across the room, fell into howls beside Maja. Lex dislodged the gun’s magazine, tossed it across the penthouse. She turned, blade pointed downward, for Kazue.

“You’re a monster!” The woman screamed at Lex. She repeated the phrase, shoved her face against Maja’s chest to weep.

Lex stared down while the words echoed through her head. She didn’t doubt their truth, but couldn’t deny it was the Collective that had made them such. All she’d done was set out to right the world’s balance. There was never a choice for her but to ensure the Collective’s debts were repaid in blood. There was no system left to punish them. No courts to hold them accountable. No police to arrest them. They’d seen to that. With it, they’d as much signed their own death-warrants as formed the monster bound to slaughter them one and two at a time.

“You know what has to happen, Kazue,” Lex said. She ignored her, but her cries went silent. “The Sleepers must awaken. The debt must be repaid.”

Kazue sniffled. She kissed Maja softly on the lips and cheek, rose with a final breath. Her eyes were hard, tearful, but accepting. They met Lex’s. Kazue swallowed hard, stiffened her neck and spine with a small pair of nods.

Lex made it quick; a lone thrust through the heart. Kazue went limp against the blade, fell beside her lover as it retracted. The power faded back for a brief moment, then the sound of something like metal grating shook the building. A wave rolled out across Tokyo. The penthouse lights flared brightly, then died out. A door opened near the elevators, a shielded flashlight attachment on a rifle blinding Lex even at the distance. It lowered to reveal Rachel’s face, the others behind her.

Rachel jogged forward, met Lex halfway up the hall with a pant, “We’re ready to move. We’ll have to take the tunnels, the streets are already turning into chaos.”

“No,” Lex said defiantly. “No-one hides anymore. Hold your own, but don’t harm anyone. The GSS will be inbound. We need to ensure the people are protected.”
Rachel gave a nod, leaned to look past at the two bodies beside one another, “Stroman and Matsuoka?” Lex gave a sole nod. Rachel huffed from exertion, “Good. Come on.”

The rest of the group turned for the stairwell. Lex hesitated, mind caught in Kazue’s willing sacrifice. She hadn’t begged, or pled, merely accepted her fate. Lex sympathized, started forward to follow the others down the thousands of steps to the lobby.

The Collective: Part 2

2.

The Collective

Lex was clad in leather, swords at her back as the neon of billions of signs and lights threw a sickening array of colors at her. She’d already taken the liberty of dying her hair– jet black with streaks of silver. Her heavy, blue eye shadow was accented by black eye-liner, as much for fashion as concealment. When coupled with her ultra-pale skin, black leather duster, skin-tight clothing and calf-high boots, she appeared more like a terrifying wraith than a twenty-six year old woman.

The streets were mostly empty, a frightening prospect for any one that might have seen Tokyo in the past, before The Sleep– what Lex and the people like her called the shift that the world had taken. Before then, Tokyo was the most densely-populated city in the world. Over fifty-million people would daily flood the streets and sidewalks of the metropolis. Doctors, lawyers, fireman, police– any occupation or type of person thought to be named was found ten times over in the insanity that flowed along daily routes to the tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of businesses spread through the city’s sky-line. All this, to say nothing of the tourists and foreign business people that flocked to the city in untold numbers.

Now, it was a ghost town. At least, it looked that way. Lex’s boots crossed the vacant sheen of oil and water over the white-lined cross-walk. Even if anyone cared to look at her, the katanas at her back were hardly noticeable in the glare of color that assaulted the senses. She wasn’t worried in the least, instead determined. Her focused myopia was evident in the rigidity of her spine and the deliberate steps that propelled her into a narrow alley-way.

Lex slunk into darkness, blinded given what she’d come from. She nosed out a metal door in her shifting night-vision, banged a balled fist against it twice, then hesitated before a third knock. An face-height panel slid open to a lone pair of almond eyes. Harsh syllables from a native Japanese rolled into softer consonants to from a question.

Lex’s eyes were forward, body straight, “Tell Ryo the message has been delivered.”

The eyes moved with a nod. The panel grated metal, slid shut. Lex turned on-heel to follow the alleyway through, her destination slightly less clear her intent to reach it.

She’d lived in Tokyo twenty years, had grown up in its hustle and bustle, met more than her share of its underbelly, upper-belly, and expats like her parents. There wasn’t much about Tokyo she didn’t know or hadn’t seen, yet paradoxically, it was eternally changing, different with each breath: Maybe that was how the Collective had been able to do what they’d done. It was certainly plausible; Tokyo’s people were used to the fast-paced, respectful turns Japanese culture and society had taken, were trained from birth not to linger, think. Lingering was inefficient, unproductive, and thinking meant wasting time in place of getting things done– what a great irony that all the people did now was sleep.

The profundity wasn’t lost on Lex as she stepped across once-crowded streets. The only signs of civilization were a trio who’d managed to retain a modicum of self-reliance, left their figurative beds to retrieve food between bouts of sleep. Most things were drone delivered nowadays, daily food shipments too. Fresh-vegetables and full-meals were as much a given now as they had once been a luxury. Such was the way of the world that even these simple contrivances of life had been relegated to programs, code, and machines. The Collective had seen to that.

They’d also unwittingly signed their own death-warrants. Twelve men and women of various nations came together under a singular creed; pacify the world and take its money in the process. Politicians were lobbied and bribed until governments were largely useless, entirely in the pockets of the group. The insidious nature of the Sleep began with technology replacing the people, was a decade in the making. Eventually, no matter the outcry, it was obvious jobs were better handled by algorithms and unmanned vehicles or machines. Out went the laymen and blue-collar workers.

With them, municipalities became controlled by super-computers that watched and listened in on everything through massive surveillance networks. They were always collecting data, analyzing it, processing results faster and more responsive than humans. Fire-fighters turned into automated water-carrying drones and doubly powerful fire-suppression systems with countless redundancies and built to never fail. Police were down-sized into private armies, their orders given by A-I’s that adhered to the Collective’s programmed tenants as if the words of God. They killed or imprisoned without mercy, the former more likely now that fewer people toed the lines each day from fear of one or the other.

Even Lex was cautious of the drones; katanas were useful against flesh, but even the sharpest blade couldn’t sunder the thick, military-grade armor-plating of the flying menaces. She and the others like her relied on their wits, abilities to vanish, or evade their presence altogether. It was for that reason Lex crossed the empty street again, cut-through another alley way to emerge on the far side of an intersection, begin a zig-zag through various alleys toward her destination.

The drones didn’t sweep the alleys anymore; nothing that took place in them would ever last long enough to be caught. The worst of atrocities had largely been weeded out when the Sleep hit in full force– there was hardly an opportunity for pick-pockets to pilfer when no-one left their homes. The same went for killers, would-be kidnappers, or even rapists. In those ways, the incalculably infinite V-R worlds were a good thing. They kept the freaks at bay and their victims safe– but the problem of their existence wasn’t solved. They’d merely been hidden, their crimes relegated to sick, virtual fantasies. The people would just as soon be out in the real world living those fantasies out if there were enough people to enact them on.

The veil had to fall. The true face of the world had to be revealed to the people. They needed to know of their own, willing enslavement. With the Collective’s death, the VR Sleep would die too. Lex swore her life to it, tasted the death on her tongue and felt the Collective’s blood wash over her. The twelve that comprised the Collective would soon share those feelings. One-by-one, she would coat her blades with their blood until their empire weakened, fell atop their lifeless corpses.

Lex lingered in the shadows of the last alley on her route, watched the street ahead beneath a massive, LED television that flashed product ads in vain at the empty road. The distant sound of tires on the road was only just audible as the rain returned, gathered strength. The lights’ auras were muffled by the sheets of water that quickly descended over the city.

A tire splashed a puddle as it rounded a corner at Lex’s left with a silent, electric engine. The stretch limo eased into place beneath the television with a squeak of ceramic brakes. Its black, glossy finish was freshly waxed. Water beaded along the slick surfaces, formed miniature streams along the reflected, neon city-scape. An automated door opened for a man in a suit to step out, pull open an umbrella. Lex’s eyes homed in on the couple behind him; an aging, Chinese man, well past his expiration date, and a woman half his age with equally as much power.

Lex knew both him and the woman by reputation and the general ire of others like her. She’d long ago sniffed their details out: The man was Qiang Li, head of the Global Agricultural department, and now responsible for roughly ninety-five percent of the world’s food supply. China’s immense agricultural land had been divided between a few agencies and corporations as the Sleep deepened. In a short time, the world’s roughly twelve billion people were eating from a singular source– one that Li controlled. Even asleep, the people were hungry.

Her eyes narrowed on Li as he mocked chivalry with an extended hand that met the nimble fingers of the soft-skinned American woman and helped her from the car. She wore the high-powered dress of the wealthy elite, her posture more rigid and predatory than even Lex’s. She was Michelle Kay, recently appointed head of Global Weapons Research and Distribution, and sole remaining arms dealer. She supplied weapons for the former US army, now operating under the name of Global Security Solutions and leadership of Collective member James Hobbs. The few aspects of the military not phased-out into autonomous hands were special-ops groups– Green-berets, Navy Seals, SAS and the like. Those ultra-disciplined men and women were the only human element that remained to keep the world secure. Every country had some contingent of Hobbs’ men, all experts of lethality, and armed by Kay.

One side of Lex’s mouth snarled in disgust as she started across the street, made it to the front of the limo. She began to round its edge when the trio finally caught her approach. The umbrella-carrier began to speak. Lex’s blades scraped metal against fabric, slid from their sheaths to their downward point. They remained still as she stepped within reach of the trio.

She struck; screams shattered the rainstorm’s white noise. Her leg went up, struck the carrier’s chest. He flew back winded. Lex’s weight rounded mid-air, blades parallel with a wide slice. They cut deep along Li’s torso. His intestines spilled out with a gallon of blood as he fell to his knees with a rasping scream. Before he landed, the blades were already buried in Kay’s chest. Her eyes bulged. Adrenaline fried her nerves. Blood leaked down her lip, dripped along her blouse. Lex gave a twist that crunched bone, forced the blades lateral. They met, edge-to-edge, withdrew in a flick. Kay crumpled to the ground.

Lex’s left hand angled a swipe across Li’s throat as she turned for the winded man on the ground. He skittered back, clutched his throat and choked for air. Lex loomed over him as her blades left opaque droplets on the sidewalk. He rasped sharp attempts to breath, fought tried to drag himself backward.

Lex slammed a booted foot into his sternum, stuck the tip of a blade up against his throat to hold him in place. She met his eyes, unaffected by the carnage, “You will take over Michelle Kay’s place, and ensure you have a say in Li’s replacement, then await further instructions. Is that clear?”

He nodded, struggled to breathe as he replied, “Wh-what if I can’t… a-a-arrange it?”

Lex’s face remained blank, tilted to one side as her blade’s tip stretched his skin, “That is unacceptable.” He acknowledged with a nod. “This conversation never happened.”

His eyes said he was more certain it hadn’t than anything in his life. She gave a satisfied sneer, lifted her boot from his sternum, then slammed the opposite one against his temple. He was unconscious when she turned away, blades whirling to fling away water and blood before they slipped back into their sheathes.

“Two down,” she muttered. “Ten to go.”

Missed part 1? Read it here!

The Collective: Part 1

1.

Declaration of War

Her crème white skin gleamed in the dimmed light of overhead LEDs, tinted with a plethora of colors from the 3-D holo-vid in the room’s center. Her body mirrored that of the projected woman before her; legs and back straight, eyes forward, and arms at her sides. In her hands, two, razor sharp Katanas gleamed with hints of light and caricatured reflections. She began to move with the projection; her feet parted, braced her exposed torso as her arms drew the blades up to rest on her shoulders. The cold steel triggered waves that coursed through her body, tickled thin, light hairs along her arms and neck, and refined the shape of her nipples.

With a fluid motion, the blades lifted. A foot kept her balance in a pivot while the other leg swept sideways to come about. The blades’ hilts touched, began to whirl as one entity with graceful movements. She urged them apart and into a vertical tumble. Balanced extensions of arms and legs moved her lower, forward. The blades made long, controlled swipes as she pirouetted to bring their blunt edges in toward one another, form make-shift bars of death before her face. Her dark eyes closed in a meditative trance, and the movements flowed into one another again, faster this time.

The nudity wasn’t required for her practice, but she couldn’t escape the freedom it brought. To be one with the sword required she be willing to dance as naked as it was. The two were beautiful beasts, as graceful and ready to love, embrace passion as to murder, spill bloods.

The movements became faster with small leaps. The room’s layout was clear in her mind as her muscles worked. Despite the darkness, she saw the room with light– an unnecessary luxury given her routine. She was as much dead to the world now as anyone who might cross her blades would become. At that, it wouldn’t be long before the polished steel ran crimson.

They were already watching from the cameras embedded in the apartment. She knew who they were, had seen them before. In that odd way that memories sometimes manifest from the aether, they appeared in portents of violence. The visions were stills of things yet to happen, as though made of old, analog film left on the cutting room floor of time. For her part, she would see the film joined by blood.

Her style of practice was something of Tai-Chi mixed with Ballet, both forms of bodily training lost to the world in the rise of self-medicating technology. Before the Sleep, it had surrounded people, become so much a part of their lives most hadn’t noticed it any longer. Now, it was their lives; virtual worlds had become as real as the Earth itself– moreso even, given the untold possibilities V-R allowed for. Everyone was now a buff-stud or supermodel in a world of their choosing, lived out through the use of special chairs, visors, and neural adapters. Nowadays peoples’ avatars were more them than their chair-bound vessels ever could be.

The world had gorged itself on greed and gluttony when all but a few jobs became automated, relegated to synthetic workers, robots, or intelligent software. The World Economy had begun to collapse then. Ninety-eight percent of the world’s work force was laid off. Before it could decimate the planet entirely, steps were taken, precautions put in place. The populous was given living stipends, needs and luxuries made available at fractions of the cost to ensure complacency.

Most of the world saw the change as a positive, but not Lex. She saw if for what it was, and in some instances, what it would become. There were no more wars, sure, but there was also no more freedom, no property but what was allotted. There were no avenues to pursue hopes or dreams, and given time, there would be no hopes or dreams anyhow. The world’s peoples had become victims of their own hubris, compromised fertility for longer life, vitality for luxury, and mental health for quick fix pleasures that would only lead to stagnation. All the while the rich got richer off it, did whatever they wanted. The global population had compromised fertility for longer life, vitality for luxury, and mental well-being for the quick-fix of pleasures that would only lead to stagnation.

Lex knew that, and so eschewed all but the most necessary luxuries, stipends, or pacifying technology that would allow her to achieve her goals. Those things couldn’t stop her from pursuing the future she sought, nor eliminating anyone in her way of it. Her only dream or hope was to change things– by force or reason, whichever was fastest, easiest.

That was how they had found her; through a few, overlooked surveillance devices embedded in common goods. Then, once surveillance had begun, they’d come in when she’d been away and planted more equipment to build their case. All she’d needed was the sense to investigate at the scents of foreign sweat, leather. When she did, she realized her mistake. Regardless, it only served to hasten her plans.

The world was the oyster of a very select few whom had carved it out for themselves over the course of decades. They had private armies– whole governments even– on their side, had otherwise pacified any other resistance against them. They’d drugged, imprisoned, or neutralized anyone that might stand against them, refused to sleep. They would kill anyone, no matter their station, to ensure the status-quo.

And now they were here.

The door to her apartment burst open. A flash-bang went exploded. Lex remained poised, blades touching before her face. Her ears rang, but she felt the vibrations of a half dozen feet charge inside. It was one of the few squads of police left in Tokyo– the whole world at that. The bulk of their numbers had long been reduced to drone patrols with high-powered tazers or small chain-guns mounted to their bellies, but these were foot soldiers.

They filed in. The latest, high-tech battle-rifles in their hands rose on her. Shouts of Japanese and English commanded the American-born woman to drop her weapons. They flowed in, fanned out in a half-circle around her. The commands never ceased.

Her arms lowered deliberately, swords in a downward-point toward the floor, her readied poise. The squad flinched. Shouts grew louder, repetitive. Rifle’s shook from adrenaline and fear. A few sparks of arousal in men and women left them half-dazed at Lex’s beauty and nudity.

In a blink, she leapt forward. A foot landed on the ball. Her hands flashed. The blades sliced up, in, down, flourished with a backward flip. Lex landed back in place as if she’d never moved at all. The only evidence was the slow river that flow form the blades’ tips, dripped crimson onto the metal floor. The squad blinked in disbelief as the lead man disassembled, arms severed from his torso and head from neck. His corpse fell to a heap.

Someone fidgeted, fingered a trigger. Lex leapt, spun. Blades sliced air, marred flesh, sundered bone and spinal nerves. Two of the left-most squad were decapitated in a flick of wrists. The others reacted, moved to take aim. Rifles were kicked from hands, bodies winded and propelled back with tremendous force. The dual blades mutilated wrists, incised throats. Screams turned to gurgles and bubbled whispers.

The room went silent again from the dead and wounded.

Two soldiers remained. One reached for her side arm, the other on her back on the floor, dazed. She gasped for air. Lex landed beside her, jabbed the left blade down into her chest, pierced her glossy body armor. The blade wrenched with cracking kevlar and bone. Blood spurted from an opened heart. Lex’s movement became a raised-leg spin that struck the side-arm. It flew across the room as the blades went for the woman’s throat, poised on either side to cut. She backed her up to the wall, forced her to her knees.

Lex stared down, blood spattered along her silken body, “You speak English.” The woman nodded. It wasn’t a question. “Tell your bosses I’m coming.” The woman nodded again. She raised her back up to her feet. “Tell them what you’ve seen here today, and that you know I could have done the same to you.”

“Wh-why?” The armored woman asked.

Lex chose her words carefully, “Mercy is a gift not often given. The world is about to change. You may choose to change with it, or die by my sword.” She locked eyes with the woman, “The choice is yours.” The woman sensed her conviction, swallowed hard. Lex sneered, “Leave. Do not return.”

The blades fell back to Lex’s sides in their readied poise. The woman bolted, stumbled over bodies for the door, fell through it only to scramble up and flee.

No matter what happened now, the Collective would know she was coming. They’d forced her hand, but she could use it, show them the stakes so they might watch, see the carnage about to befall them. Only then could they begin to feel fear– fear that would force them to make rash decisions, position their empire to be crumbled as they were taken out, one-by-one.

One way or another, an end would soon come.