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!

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