Hard Lessons: Part 1

1.

Business is Business.

The lights of the main dining room flicked off in tandem. The low radiance of the remaining sconces bathed the restaurant in the upscale aura that often separated wealthy from even-wealthier by way of the room’s central, blinding strength and shadowy perimeters.

The restaurant told of Triad affiliation in its carefully selected, hand-woven colors meant to eternally bloom in light, never faded no matter the blood spilt over them. In that way, it said this was Triad territory; these shadows Triad-shadows from which they watch, embrace, and if need be, hide a corpse.

The décor complimented the message with a disciplined elegance. Highly polished Tang-dynasty shields were spaced between Middle-Chinese script-borders, sections of frosted glass of beaded dragon-reliefs, lotus flowers, and filigree. Any museum could’ve inundated the owner with offers, but even those just there for soup knew there was no point in asking.

The very thought of such flagrant wealth and power had always made Zhou Xun laugh. Even before he’d murdered Li Guo Hsu, his men, taken charge of the business. Hsu amassed stories were always amusing, from a time of youthful, aristocratic forays.

In his earlier days, one man had offered Five K for the Jian at his side; a paltry sum for the restaurateur even then. More-so given the sword was passed between Man Zi Tong Enforcers for over a century, once belonged to a royal guard of the Qin Dynasty.

Needless to say, it was worth millions if a dollar.

In Li Guo’s hands, as with the Enforcers before him, it had spilled its share of blood. Xun had watched the Jian cut down more than a few traitors and failed attackers himself. None had imparted the satisfaction of its final thrust through Li Guo’s heart by Xun’s hand. He found it a fitting end for the cutthroat, all-business man Li Guo had once been.

He was hardly that then. Hsu had softened, had grown fat on American decadence, the excreted dollars of their highest class. Despite his relative attachments to his former mentor, Xun saw an opportunity and took it. Hsu should have known, prepared.

He didn’t. His instincts were eroded by a time and lifestyle that felt them unnecessary; him, untouchable. Xun proved otherwise.

But that was the way the game was played. Few Man Zi Tong met peaceful ends. Those that did, were extraordinary. Hsu was not one. Presently, his Jian rested in a lighted case behind the register. It sat just high enough to broadcast a message across the entire restaurant; Li Guo was gone, wasn’t coming back.

No-one knew that more than his son Jun, rightful heir to his father’s business and teetering on the brink of war with Xun, his men. The Man Zi Tong was in the usual chaos of regime change, still too near to reeling to have fully settled. The only hope Jun had without his father’s resources was fronting the money to make a statement.

It just so happened a Golden Triangle trafficker liked the idea of Xun’s death, and fronted the cash. After that, all Jun needed was the statement. Jun took the cash knowing he’d pay off the trafficker or die, one way or the other. Business was business, after all.

Currently, his statement crouched at the edge of the restaurant’s roof, eyeing the door below. Crystal Kane and Angela Dale were another student-mentor pair whose bond involved significantly less interpersonal knife-play– at least where their own partnership was concerned.

The door opened below, forcing them into the shadows. Dress shoes and silks the cost of an average salary preceded Chinese tobacco wafting on Jackstaff’s autumn winds. Low Chinese broke at a pair of heels that clicked up and into place beneath them. The soft rustle and click of a fashionable clutch’s latch prompted them to peer at the newly-assembled group.

Crystal’s digital-HUD implant flashed real-time Chinese-English translations.

– won’t shake the hornet’s nest,” one man said.

“Don’t be so sure,” another replied.

The woman allowed one man to light her smoke. “If Jun is to have his revenge, he will have it. She loosed a ball of smoke that plumed up, past her face. “There will be nothing to stop him. We must accept that. What happens afterward is our concern.

The group broke for a pair of high-end sports cars nearby. Their exit alone confirmed their association with the Man Zi Tong, but their words erased any doubts as to their place in the organization. They were near the top, cavorting with would-be kings.

Crystal recalled once fearing these kinds of people. Then, she recalled fearing nothing for a long time. Since then, she had only feared any whom mightthrow her back in the street. That number grew smaller with each day. The Triad offshoot of Sun Yee On expanding throughout Jackstaff the last few months was hardly intimidating. They were tourists in her town, and so long’s she did her job, her game protected her.

Binnacle Sound was the new Puget Sound. Both a thriving port city, and a dead harbor filled (not entirely metaphorically) with corrupt officials. It was more difficult to know whom not to pay off these days.

For an organization like the Man Zi Tong, it was paradise. A new gold rush in a new Santa Fe. The most important thing, as usual, was carving out as much of the resource as possible and gaining power through it.

In Jackstaff, the greatest resource available was shadows. The city was a new port for the Golden Triangle’s drug trade, shipped straight across the Pacific to North America. The rest of the West coast had gotten wise, cut into the profits. To the Triads, it was too much.

It wasn’t a surprise Man Zi Tong had a presence in Jackstaff. No-one expected much of the place after the closure of the city’s main chemical and fishing industries. (The two more linked than the city admitted.) Most people in the once-thriving seaside town struggled to find ends, let alone make them meet. Unemployment was beyond a problem. It was an epidemic.

For those with far more than they could ever need but unwilling to share, coercion and loss were mainstays. Most others had nothing to lose anyhow.

Crystal had felt the latter first-hand most of the last decade. She’d lived on the graces of fools biting off more than they could chew and throwing the rest out. She’d lived on the streets, out of trash-cans, wishing to die but never willing to.

Then, Angela appeared, living high in fast cars, fashion, and offering every dream she might dream. In exchange, Crystal agreed to be her partner. What that entailed, among other things, was waiting for the group to enter their sports cars atop the restaraunt’s roof.

Glossy curves reflected exterior neongrids and filigreed ornamentation in passing; gaudy dècor were its execution not so exquisitely refined. The first car disappeared into the night in a sonorous cry of high-performance cylinders. The other remained in place, forcing Angela to huff frustration.

The clock was ticking. The job needed to be done. The longer they waited, the shorter night became and the less time they’d have if things went sideways. Crystal shared her anxiety, but was calm for the sake of balance.

It was their way; one worried, the other foiled. That duality kept them ready for anything.

Crystal focused on the second car, the man and woman there. Darkness beyond the building was too complete for even her HUD to compensate. The couple were mere silhouettes in darkness where only a glowing, cherried-clove marked their continued presence. Silhouettes began shifting. The cherry was steady at the passenger-window. A rhythmic stir began

It took Crystal a full minute to comprehended the movements, their repetition.

She rolled her eyes at Angela, “Really? Let’s just do this.”

Angela shook her head, the woman’s upper-half bobbing but her hand stock-still, hanging on the window so her cigarette didn’t tip. “Light’s too direct. Move now and they’ll see us.”

Crystal sighed, resolved to silence.

They watched the act, as equally removed from its sexuality as intrigued by its utter apathy. A rigid business-like quality commanded the scene. Crystal guessed neither man nor woman had much romantic feeling.

Gangers were like that, Crystal had learned; no real emotions outside fury. Everything else was a formality; sex, joy, hunger, excretion. It didn’t matter what. So long as there was a need, a requirement, it would be met. No matter how awkward it seemed from the outside.

Crystal couldn’t imagine such creatures being born. It seemed too personal.

In a way, their client was the inverse. It may have been Crystal’s reading alone, but Angela would recognize it at some point too. Hsu had contracted Curie, and thus them, for what a sentimental heist. The money was right for a Triad, but the cause of the job itself was odd. Neither of them knew what to make of it.

Hsuhad admittedpartial sentimentality to Curie, possibly for the sake of camaraderie rather than conveyance of feeling, then offered half upfront to keep that quiet. Angela and Crystal shut up after that. Cautionary acts meant taking care not to make more enemies than healready would.

Angela all but confirmed the subtext later, along with another:Hsu didn’t expect more than he was willing to pay for.

In other words, if caught, giving him up in exchange for their lives was perfectly acceptable. Angela mused this might serve his purpose as well as taking the Jian in the first place, or it wouldn’t matter as they’d be dead. Triads were like that; as likely to send a message as to let you go on good behavior. Their unpredictability was their real threat.

Crystal watched the business-fellatio, knowing all her years of street living had never quite served up a scene so emotionless. Even the eldest, cheapest whores she’d known put some life into it. This was like watching a reanimated corpse try to swallow a hot dog anchored to a car-seat.

It ended as indifferently as it had carried on; with a movement and the distant sound of spit. The cherry flared again and the engine roared. The car pulled away, leaving Angela and Crystal to work, however utterly flabbergasted by what they’d seen.

They double-checked the area, then felined their way beneath the back-door light. Inside would be cameras, security guards, night time dealers running numbers and playing cards in the basement meat-lockers. Their best chance was bypassing the cams, cutting the alarms, and finessing the Jian from the case.

They were inside in moments. Crystal slipped her lock-picks into her belt while her HUD ID’d cameras, superimposed their vision cones across the building. Angela’s HUD did likewise. The room became a mix of faded cones, dotted paths between various blind-spots.

Far ahead, the Jian gleamed in its case, freshly oiled and set upon red velvet and satin like a shining beacon. Obviously Xun had never thought anyone ballsy enough to steal it.

That was one of the problems with such creatures; he thought only of the way he himself would think, act. He was incapable of considering the minds of those unlike him. More than that, Xun likely never considered Toolers couldn’t be touched for stealing from Triads. Especially not when on contract with other Triads.

Then again, Xun wasn’t a Triad. Not really. He thought himself one. In reality, it was Jun Hsu that was. Son of a former Enforcer and allowed to operate as Man Zi Tong by the graces of Hong Kong’s Sun Yee On. Hsu was given a choice of successor. His son was the logical and groomed choice.

Of course, Hong Kong would always back a winner, but Xun couldn’t make a case if he wasn’t given time to earn anything.

But Xun didn’t understand that. He also didn’t understand security wasn’t just a feeling. It was an art. One he was not well-versed in. Li Guo had been. In the way that all powerful men were; people feared violating their security, so they didn’t.

No one feared Xun though. Not like they had Li Guo.

Most of all, Angela and Crystal didn’t fear anything beyond the job. That was the game, how it was played. During jobs, all bets were off. Toolers were the ones going suffering most immediately for those fuck-ups. Before or after, it was the Fixers, Middlers, or Johns.

Mostly, if someone wanted revenge, it was the Johns that got hit. Can’t shoot the messenger, or no-one’s bringing you messages anymore.

They reached the case. Angela set to work. Crystal fought open a security panel on the wall. She clipped a pair of leads to hot and cold wires, linked them to a small tablet. With a few swipes of her fingers the lights flickered, went out. Through-out the building heavy locks slammed shut.

A sudden clamor sent them reeling. Shouts preceded flash-lights flaring beneath automatic rifles and SMGs. Chinese and English were shouted in equal measure, both commanding them to freeze. A dozen different barrels trained and closed in, forcing them nearer one another.

“Intel was off,” Crystal whispered over shouting Chinese.

“Spilt milk.”

The Chinese went silent. A pair of men parted, allowing another through. He sidled up to the register, pistol in-hand.

“Mr. Hsu’s representatives, I presume.”

Xun stepped forward; a Chinese-American more white than most of his men. Late fifties, and dressed in the silks of crooked businessmen, his left hand was framed by a tailored cuff and leveled on Angela. It ended in the fingered trigger and loaded barrel of a chrome .45.

Crystal muttered, “Well?

“Improvise.”

Xun surveyed the suppressed TMPs harnessed on Crystal’s chest, the baby-Deagle at her side, and the gear strung along Angela’s body.

“Going to war?” Xun joked.

His men chuckled. He glanced aside. Angela struck.

A spinning kick forced the .45 through the air, morphed it into a body-throw. Crystal triggered a smoke grenade that instantly filled the room. Gunfire blatantly refused to erupt, Xun’s men too afraid of hitting him as he slammed back onto the Jian’s case, shattering it.

A moment later he was on the floor, Crystal and Angela ghost trains fleeing through smoke and out the back-door. It slammed, latched and locked again. A breath later a motorcycle zoomed up, unmanned. Angela was atop it first. Crystal adjusted the Jian on her back, climbed on behind her.

They took off, rocketing away in a scream of BMW horsepower.

Before the door opened again, they were gone, lost before they could be tracked, and a hundred G’s wealthier.

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Poetry-Thing Thursday: Defy

I don’t want to go home,
smell the flames and death,
taste madness in the air.
Despair.

I’d rather drown
in a pitch-thick abyss,
than a sea of bright lies.
Realize.

I’d prefer a painful truth,
over comfortable nothings,
and watching them spread.
Dread.

Given the choice ‘tween,
happy lies, dark truths,
I choose the latter,
for nothing will extinguish truth’s glow.

Know.

Reality fades,
the universe with it.
Learn why,
defy.

Short Story: Someone Else’s Heaven

She awoke on her bed, certain of where she was and completely unaware of how she’d gotten there. Kris had a bad habit of waking up in familiar places for unfamiliar reasons. More often than not, it was a combo of drugs and The Arcade that did it.

The bar was a retro-retrofit of an old-time saloon. Someone had once attempted cash in on a wild-west craze with it, but far as Kris knew, she’d never lived through one. That the Arcade had been abandoned thirty-odd years or more before its present incarnation.

It wasn’t the best or the worst place in town. That was reserved for Downtown and the ghetto respectively. Though nowadays an argument could be made that everywhere that wasn’t Downtown was a ghetto, it was an argument made only by the people unaware of a real ghetto’s realities. Kris had grown up in that part of the city, and really, it was a different world.

One of the things about being black in Jackstaff; Male or Female, you were certain to interact with the ghetto, no matter how hard you tried not to. If you came from it, you lived it. If you didn’t, your family or friends did. Else-wise, your enemies or rivals did.

Of all the options, that last was the worst. Hood rats, Kris knew, stuck together like a rat-king. They traveled in packs, could devour you in passing swarms. She was just glad she’d managed to dodge them as much as she had.

She let her eyes focus. The groggy blur of perpetual hangover resolved into the water-stained ceiling of her loft. Like the rest of the world, her place was in between worlds; not a slum, (mostly in name only) but not the hangout of the Elite either.

Mostly, it wasn’t a slum because some damned fool got it in their head to paint half the town without actually repairing it. Then, they charged higher-than-normal rent rates for ghetto-slum living. The idea caught on, spread like wildfire.

Now, it was damned near impossible to find a place not molding, mildewed, or otherwise rank. Even if, you’d be nearer uptown than was affordable.

Kris couldn’t complain too much though. She’d lucked out. Even as she stared at the spotted ceiling, she felt a warm body beside her. She was only vaguely aware of it until her periphery resolved again and formed into the smooth, supple outline of a petite body.

The night rushed back like a freight-train. If she’d been standing, it would’ve knocked her down; sitting, it would’ve stolen the wind from her. The body was the newest bartender from the Arcade, Yuki.

Yuki was the kind of Asian-American girl whose parents hailed from their homelands. They never let her forget that. Half-Nipponese, half-Korean, she’d said once she’d “been cursed with the worst of both worlds,” from parents both monumentally judgmental and over-demanding.

Yuki’d played along until she’d turned eighteen, then fled San Diego to wander North, fucking, sucking, smoking and snorting until ending up in Jackstaff older, broke, and looking for work. She’d yet to recognize that was how most people ended up in Jackstaff.

All the same, she’d bar-hopped and couch surfed since her arrival. Months had passed with the only semblance of stability the nightly rush of gaming, drugging, and bar-tending. In a way, Kris felt, they were perfect for each other.

That feeling had gotten the best of her. She couldn’t say for sure how much so yet, but the aching in her legs and the warmth in her groin said it was enough. The distinct feeling of her cotton mouth spawned by moaning rather than drinking and getting high confirmed it. Unbeknownst to Kris, Yuki remembered it all, was too dead asleep to say it.

Didn’t matter in the end: good nights were marked by lost memory; the best by the severity of bodily exhaustion come morning. Judging by Kris’ strained lower-half, this was one for the record books.

She tried to rise from the bed; her legs wobbled, knees buckled. She fell to her ass on the bed with a whompf of old mattress. Yuki groaned half-asleep, mumbling something in Nipponese first, then Korean. She pulled the wool blanket over her head, further blotting the gray leaking in from the frosted windows, then stilled again. A moment later, she was snoring again.

Kris surveyed the room, awaiting her legs’ wake up: nights were cold already, forced the peeling trim to condensate and peel further around the windows. The drafts were enough to make her knees lock-up first thing in the morning. Usually though, that was only if the windows iced over on the coldest nights.

She suspected Yuki as the cause for her lameness this morning. Or part of it. It explained why they’d slept ’til noon; they’d been unconsciously spooning for warmth.

Kris shivered, boyshort panties and t-shirt too little to cover anything worthwhile. Her nipples hardened, forming small circus-tents on her chest. She groaned, rose again, and wobbled like a drunken sailor until she caught her footing. Gait wide, low, she sumo-wrestlered her way to the kitchenette to make coffee, lace it with Irish cream.

The ancient auto-drip protested its continued life with spitting hisses and gurgling moans. Kris ambled across the loft, returned in flannel pants and a spare blanket; as near to fully clothed as she was willing to approach so early in the morning.

Yuki tossed again. Kris poured liqueur in, then coffee, stirred. She swiveled to lean back, letting the warming plate radiate at her back while staring headlong at the bed. Yuki’s outline deformed, re-formed, pulsating beneath the woolen blanket that rose and fell with her breaths.

Kris’ eyes wandered again, up, to the decor tacked to the plaster wall. A black and white photo, enlarged to poster size; two women, spooning from a side angle. Perfect shapes, perfect skin, perfect nudity, and perfect joy; all hinting that level of perfect, pornographic class every half-romantic/half-pervert aspires to and knows doesn’t exist.

Kris stared at it, as she did every morning, assessing whether or not she’d attained that level of perfection. As usual too, she doubted it.

Even if something felt different– she guessed her jaded cynicism was finally taking over– waking up beside Yuki felt the image’s utter antithesis. The girl’s life was so hellish she’d begun running, never stopped. No perfection involved, save perfect despair.

Fact was, Kris knew the pair in the image. They weren’t a couple. They weren’t even gay. They were straight. Straight as every lipstick Lizzie drunk on curiosity then hungover on shame.

So far’s she knew these days, they weren’t even friends. They had been, once, when the photographer took the image. Somewhere between there and here, one screwed the other’s man, and they ended up at each other’s throats.

Still, the image had a resonance. Art was art, regardless of reality’s shortcomings.

She’d zoned out so hard she didn’t even notice Yuki ambling over. “Some for me?”

Something stirred inside Kris. Her eyes fell dully to Yuki.

So much happened in the span of a heart beat, it felt as though time stopped with her outside it, still running. Yuki’s voice; the high softness as petite as the rest of her. An edge of perfectly feigned timidness suffused it, concealed otherwise atom-honed steel. Something in its timbre, its rhythm, opened a flood gate in Kris’ mind.

The night came rushing back.

As if happening again, in doubled-time, Kris saw herself in the Arcade alone, bored. She saw herself getting high in a bathroom, Yuki with her. Nipponese lips pressing hers, shotgunning pot-smoke into her with growing heat of arousal,

Then, Kris remembered the hustling; players at the tables where the oldest console games ran on emus. She faked out a bar-full of players, letting Yuki run the bets’ odds rise until they’d worked the crowd to a sufficient level of belief.

Then, Kris wantonly kicked ass.

She stormed and combo’d her way through ultra-gore M-Ks, Doom M-Ps, and Street-Fighters. Each time, she won killings, killed winnings. She drank and drank, smoked and smoked. Before long, she was making eyes at Yuki; the girl who’d run from hell, somehow wound at its edge as herself someone else’s heaven.

Kris realized it then. That was what she’d felt. Why she’d brought Yuki home. The girl had wandered, drifted. She couldn’t be allowed to anymore or who she’d become would begin to be tainted. Kris felt all her feelings anew. Her stoned revelations hit in double, triple time along the gallop of a metal beat from a long-past era.

Love at first feel, and they both knew it.

They hated it for making them wrong, making them have to take back what they both thought they knew about the world, about love, but loved it too because they loved each other.

Time resumed at-once and she found Yuki before her, coffee steaming in a hand. She shoved the mug onto the sink counter separating the kitchenette and loft, shoved Yuki atop it. She didn’t resist. In mere moments they were back in bed, breath heavy, bodies slicked with sweat.

The collapsed beside one another afterward. Kris lit a mix of hash and grass, still naked on the bed. Liqueur coffee steamed the air, melding into the skunky smoke of the lit spliff. Kris watched Yuki’s small breasts sink with hit, thoroughly enjoyed the sight.

She recollected her bulwark of memory, her feelings. Mostly, she wanted to be sure Yuki’d felt it too. Her tacit admission came with a smile and nod. Then, a deep kiss that ended with blowing smoke into Kris’ mouth.

She took their joint as Yuki slurped up coffee.

“I guess you’re right, ya’ know?” Yuki finally said. “I was running. For a long time. Now I don’t need to.” She laughed paraphrasing Kris, “Running from hell to end up someone else’s heaven.”

Kris was right, too, and neither one minded a bit.

Preview: Hard Lessons

Hard Lessons
(Starting Jan. 19, ’18)

Master Thief Angela Dale and her protege are celebrating another job gone well-enough when a man appears. Crystal soon learns he is Angela’s younger brother whom has located them despite the usually-impenetrable shadows surrounding them.

Already on-guard, Crystal goes on alert once he begins insinuating himself between Angela, her work, and those closest to her. Having maneuvered himself into her home, Crystal is forced to address the issue before departing for a job.

In a world where thieves live and die on reflex, can such tension last? Find out here, starting next Friday, January 19!

Hard Lessons is a novella set in post-digital-era Jackstaff, where corporate infancy and technological supremacy combine to form pervasive, malleable trades for Fixers, Middlers, Toolers, and Johns looking to make filthy money with next to no interference. It’s a world that knows it has just begun but too, that it is certain to last.

Excerpt from Ch. 1, Business is Business:

A pair of men parted to allow another through. He sidled up to the register, “Mr. Hsu’s representatives, I presume.”

Xun stepped forward; a Chinese-American more white than his men. Late fifties and dressed in the silks of crooked businessmen, his left hand was leveled on Angela. It ended in the fingered trigger and loaded barrel of a chrome .45.

Crystal spoke from half her mouth. “Well?

“Improvise.”

Poetry-Thing Thursday: Due Alas

Cold wind blows,
over ice-trapped crests.
The waves don’t crash,
for they too are frozen,
immobile,
immutable.

Sun sinks low.
Invisible behind gray skies.
No colors shift:
neither from red to orange,
nor blue to black.
There is,
only gray.

There is no warm.
No cold.
Only frigid.
And blistering.
The latter’s nowhere to be found,
in a season of the former.

Still we wish,
hope and dream,
of warmer days,
and sights unseen,
but they never come,
and though avast,
we seek them out,
with due alas.

Short Story: Riders

She was seeing it all through his eyes, would be until it was over. That was how it worked. Riders were like ghosts; like the little, niggling thoughts in the back of one’s mind that drove them to do a thing they normally wouldn’t.

That was how the agency liked it. More importantly, that was how Riders needed it. To allow further levity meant revealing more of the Host’s takeover. Two-twenty-three didn’t think she couldn’t handle that anyhow; the final moment of betrayal in their hearts was too much already. It was like hating yourself for so crassly leading to your own demise.

She couldn’t bear to think of feeling that the whole ride, especially knowing it was validated.

No, it was best for Hosts to live in as utter an ignorance as possible. She made sure they did, too, as every other Rider. It was an unspoken agreement that Riders do their level best to whisper thoughts that kept their hosts calm while re-forming them.

It was like the oxygen mask on a plane, deploying as it went down; Riders soothed for the sake of all aboard so the Hosts accepted their fate.

Fact was, Riders were necessary. Even if they didn’t quite understand why. Even if they never saw the full-effect of their Ride– the actions of their host– there was always an explanation, a bigger picture. The Agency assured it, promised it.

Riders couldn’t handle riding pointlessly anyhow. They’d all heard the stories of the first Hosts, their Riders. 223 didn’t need to be reminded, it was part of their training to know it. A body could only play host to more than one consciousness for a few days, a week at most. After, both Rider and Host began to lose the delineation of one and the other. It was an effect, the Agency said, of becoming too exposed to the mental processes of one another.

In essence, because both consciousnesses were encountering new methods of processing thought, they began emulating them in bits and pieces. That was perfectly fine for the short term, enlightening even, but the longer it lasted, the more permanent it became.

The block was simple human thought; certain thoughts took longer to unravel or understand as a result of mental intermediary between them and action. Generally, those intermediaries were often evaluatory, acting as filters of morality, experience to dictate decision making.

But a ridden Host had shortcuts, even longer paths. Their Rider did too, if only temporarily. The longer that connection was maintained, the longer those basic requirements were over-written, over-stayed or altogether avoided.

As a result, traits of both Rider and Host bled between them, freely exchanged. Before long, the lines blurred to non-existence. Then Rider and Host became part of one another in a sort of quasi mental-merge.

But since the Human psyche wasn’t meant for such uses or abuses, it wasn’t long before both Host and Rider were utterly insane. They became unwitting schizophrenics, completely unaware that the voices they were hearing were one another’s. The only way to really handle them then was to eliminate them.

Reasons there were two-fold; if for some reason knowledge of Riders were discovered, the consequences could be disastrous for every universe involved. More than that, it meant mistakes had been made, needed to be corrected as cleanly and painlessly as possible.

223 wasn’t a pup by any standards. She’d been a Rider nearly forty-years. Course, that was by a measure of time that didn’t exist where she hailed from. Though ostensibly human, her people had long outgrown the need for singular universal inhabitance.

In fact, if the Agency were true, the Riders efforts were to raise remaining universes’ to their level. 223 believed the Agency’s aims at least. But as much as she believed in it, as a goal-oriented entity, she had a hard time believing in its people.

After all, they were human– or near enough– and especially susceptible to error and manipulation. Riders were a pure manifestation of that.

Still, she saw his world through his eyes and would until she backed out, was pulled out, or the Host was killed. The harsh reality of being a Rider was ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the Host ended up dead, in trouble with authorities, or worse. The rarer good ending did exist, and a Rider was guaranteed to have a few over time, but they were far enough between to easily forget them otherwise.

It was all for the greater good, the Riders knew, and it was never a comfort.

223’s current ride was no different from any of the other forty-years of Hosts. She rode three to four new Hosts a week these days, but had long ago abandoned hope the odds of good-to-bad would be altered in any way.

To do so was pointless. All hoping could lead to was damaging her back home. Either through some misguided attempt to help, rebel, or more emotional scarring than was necessary.

Still, she admitted that familiar pang of pity for the guy as he straightened his poorly knotted tie in a mirror. He was a well-meaning dud, but a dud nonetheless. The Multiverse was swarmed by them. It was sad in its way, so much wasted potential.

He grabbed his suit-jacket, completely unaware of the phantom taking possession of him. Before long, she had him waltzing about his kitchen to kiss his wife and kids good-bye, grab his briefcase and coffee, and slip out the door.

223 slotted herself into the correct mental state. Good riders could do it instantly, but the best took their time, got to know their Host first to develop the right empathy, the right control. 223 was nothing if not one of the best.

Thing about it was, the Ride was really just that; a ride. Good Riders knew how to nudge their Host onto track with a few, specific thoughts, nudges that turned out to be all anyone ever needed.

They weren’t really thoughts though. That was important to remember. More like feelings, shadows of feelings, shifts or sparks sometimes so deep in the psyche a person didn’t know they existed. They were phantom’s phantoms, ghostly shadows of desires, dreams, hopes. They were the little darknesses Jung built his career off.

At least, most of the time. Sometimes they were lights, but those lights were rare.

In forty years, 223’d learned to tell when big events were near. She’d been through a few; armed revolutions, bloody coups, massive, sexual awakenings– her personal favorite– and everything in and around. They were all experienced through various Hosts, eachusually only for a short period.

Usually too, the closer the event was to its climax, the darker the rides were.For some, it was assassinations, suicides, public or private but with massive repercussions. Sometimes, it was a cheating or cheated-on spouse meant to become the next Gloria Steinem or Jane Roe.

This time, it was looking bigger, darker. She wasn’t sure what, but the rides had gotten darker. Moreso than she’d ever seen. Whatever was set to happen, even this waltzing family-man had his dark part to play.

His day wasn’t rough. She’d seen worse, but she nudged him at every necessary turn. It was a testament to her skill that mere hours allowed her to turn the wife-loving, tax-paying smartly-dressed family-man into one of the most depraved monsters to have ever walked his Earth.

It started with a near accident in his brand new Lexus. The car was fine, but left him covered in coffee, neck to navel. The second nudge came minutes later at a store, when stopping to buy a new shirt. Only few pennies off the exact change, he was forced to use a credit card.

Such little things could be important; tiny sparks that fed big fires, stirring massive resentment via the way people viewed the world at-large. 223 was almost proud of how easy it had been to turn him from upstanding citizen to monster brewing.

The next nudge came an hour later. He’d changed from the ruined shirt but the suit-jacket and tie were still drying. He was forced to shake hands with his company’s CEO for the first time, neither looking nor feeling his best.

In the back of his mind, a pill of rage had formed.

223 hated herself for being so damned good, but a Rider directed their Host as per the Agency’s objective. It could take minutes, it could take days, but sooner or later the Host wound up where the Agency wanted them.

If it weren’t 223, she knew, it would’ve been someone else. Someone that might’ve made their Host suffer unduly, whether through malice or ineptitude.

223’s skill allowed her to ride The Host’s humiliation all day, nudging and prodding him into the rabid, froth of bilious fury she needed. He arrived home an hour before his wife and children a miserable wreck, then soused himself to the gills until they appeared.

The show began.

223 half-suspected the wife was a Host too. It seemed too-well played, too-well matched, for she alone to have done it all. Whether the wife was a Host too she’d never know. It didn’t matter anyway.

It took all of ten minutes before two, upstanding people became absolute, raving animals.

The wife hurled insults better than 223 expected. The husband hurled them back. Then, some plates and glasses. The children cowered, bawling in a corner further scarred with each moment.

223 couldn’t focus on them, they’d be provided for. Hell, for all she knew, they were the point of this.

Then it happened; the Wife lunged, struckhim. Humiliatied, terrified, and cooked to a boiling rage by the heated nudge of a phantom Rider, he struck back. The wife reeled back, slipped on broken glass, and slammed the back of her skull on the edge of a counter. She was dead before the crack finished resonating.

The children erupted in screams.

The last nudge. 223 watched the Host drop to his knees, lift broken glass. He jabbed, pulled. Arterial bloodspurted and sprayed the air like a demented fountain.

Then, his body hit the floor. She felt it then; that last feeling of betrayal oozing through her, but not at her. Never at her. Always at the host. Child-screams faded into the light of the Rider’s chair, and she felt it automate and sit her upright.

She fell from it into a desk chair, body shaking with grief. She slugged back something vaguely liquor-like to settle her nerves and poured. She lifted a pen, slid an ancient-looking notebook from a drawer of the glass and metal desk, and began to write:

20,073. Male. Caucasian.

2018 New Year Update! (HAPPY [late] NEW YEAR!)

Incoming transmission from the Wordsmith of Sol:

Merry late…everything, everybody!

First off, I wanna apologize for any neglect of late. It has been hectic the last few months and I’ve been less active and involved lately. Sorry. I’ve been forced to split time between books, site-work, re-formats, image editing, and the mental debauchery necessary to keep my sanity through them.

All the same, I’m hoping it’ll be less of an issue going forward. I’ll be doing my best to manage my time and be more active, but ultimately it may seem to start slow and sporadic as I work more interaction into my routine.

In the meantime, if you want to take some of the load off, link my site or even a specific story to people you think might enjoy it. As ever, you know I’m hugely grateful.

Moving along.

It’s been a while since I’ve updated you with plans present and future. So without further stalling for time:

New ebooks— I’m working on new ebook versions of previously released material. This will fix formatting and typographical errors, but if you happen to come across any and they bother you, please let me know so I can fix them. The is the unfortunate effect of being unable to pay for an editor, but I am immensely grateful to those that help and will credit you appropriately.

Smashwords— part of this re-formatting is being done for the sake of Smashwords.

If you don’t know, Smashwords is like Amazon Kindle but allows me to sell my books world-wide and (potentially) millions more people by redistributing to other digital retailers. A full list can be found here, if you’re interested.

Novels— In case you’re not aware, Free Fall  is futuristic Sci-Fi set two-hundred years after depleting resources resulted in nuclear war across Earth’s surface. This event, or series of them, caused survivors to hollow swaths of earth to live within. There, they constructed intricate digital networks of synthetic life; machines created to mimic the nature lost above, but at the cost of an equally intricate digital illusion blinding them to reality.

Currently well on its way toward completion, Free Fall’s release is TBD, but expect it sometime late 2018-early 2019.

Last, but not least!

Novellas, Short Stories, & New universe–Over time, I will be releasing stories from a new “universe” I’ve begun building. I won’t spoil anything, but they will connect to one another in subtly obvious ways, but also to others both released and not.

Fleshing out this world has become a bit of a passion project, but I’m eager for it. Why? Wait and see. I can tell you though, I’m excited about it.

So, keep an ear out for all this and more this year. I’ll do my best to be more present, but if you’ve got any questions, ask ’em. And as always, thanks for reading!

SMN

P.S. Pardon any digital dust over the next weeks. I’ll be periodically updating parts of the site. If you have any suggestions or comments, leave ’em here and let me know what you think.

Transmission Ends.