Short Story: Ghosted

Lighting flashed. Seconds later, thunder cracked. Timing said the strike was close. Somewhere inside the city. The power’d already been out twenty minutes. Sooner or later people would get suspicious. Problem was, they had every right to be. First Trust Banking was about to have near a billion credits stolen, a little suspicion was healthy.

Widow wasn’t the type to do anything half-assed. But something wasn’t sitting right with her. Between her, Wraith, and Alina Cardona running surveillance off-site, they had more than enough skill to do the job. Problem was, so far they hadn’t needed any. It was as if the block outage Cardona’d caused had fried the bank’s back-up systems too. Impossible. More impossible; Widow expected to enter via roof ventilation, emerge in a systems room for halls full of active cams, roving guards.

Instead, Wraith dropped in ahead of her. He ghosted to a door, hesitated, then moved. That was how Wraith worked. He didn’t need words. Especially on a job. He was former counter-terrorism task force, CTTF, a hard-core spec-ops type from a time before corp governments and privatized military and police.

Widow’d learned long ago that he expected absolute adherence to his ways on jobs. They’d had a tech-head along on a job once. He was meant to crack some over-priced laser gear they weren’t in on. The job went fine ‘til the kid triggered a back-up alarm by mistake. Corp-sec swarmed them like flies on fresh shit. The pissant was obviously terrified. More than likely too, prepped to give everyone up.

Wraith didn’t hesitate. He gutted the kid. Like a fish. In front of the crew. A roomful of corp-sec. And he did it with with the same detachment as a worker in a fish-packing warehouse. It wasn’t mean. It wasn’t malicious. It wasn’t cold. Rather, indifferent. Purposeful. Habitual. Widow’d hammered nails with more sympathy.

She later learned the kid had done a nickel in a corp black-site prison. He was supposed to do a dime. His time was reduced for cracking en-route. How he’d survived, Widow couldn’t fathom. He was a coward at the best of times. Wraith didn’t care. He didn’t give the kid a chance to talk.

Wraith’s seeming brutality was the momentary distraction that allowed them to gain the advantage. Wraith tossed an EMP stunner, frying corp-sec comms and helmets. By the time their gear normalized, Widow’d disappeared into a utility shaft behind Wraith. Two years later, here they were.

Since then, Widow’d become convinced there was no-one better to have on a job than Wraith and Alina. They were brawn and brains. Widow was heart– an ice-cold, black-blooded heart of pure adrenaline, but a heart nonetheless. Plus, she had the contacts, the bright ideas. Widow planned and plotted. Even if the others brought her something, she took over from there. There was no reason to do things otherwise. Tried and true was gold. They weren’t about to start fixing unbroken shit or breaking it trying to.

Even still, Widow couldn’t help but feel the same suspicions she expected were tingling on the under-sacks of First Trust’s execs. She ghosted along behind Wraith, two hunters more than ever feeling like prey. It wasn’t sitting right. She suspected Wraith felt the same way, but he’d have never said it. He didn’t need to anyhow. The air did.

The monochrome stainless and granite lobby was too vacant, too quiet. Granted, it was roughly 21:50 zed, someone was bound to be around– janitors, security, the odd boot-licking wage-slave– someone. There was no-one. Darkness. Silence. Emptiness. All the way from the dark upper-floors, down along the stairwells, through the darkened lobby, to the darkened vault-entrance.

Wraith took a position to guard the path they’d come from. Widow knelt beside the massive vault door. It looked like something from the old heist-flicks; big, metal, brash, like the people employing it. Unfortunately, it was also totally fucking impenetrable without power.

Widow dug through her pack, produced a cylindrical power source like a giant AA battery. Alkaline was obsolete nowadays, but the resemblance stuck. Incidentally, this produced somewhere near a million times more power than those batteries. She set it down beside a single-use plaz-torch, a kit of pliers and cutters. The torch lopped off the bolts holding the vault’s access panel together, and a moment later she was stripping and cutting wires. A full minute after, the power source was connected, fueling the vault panel. All they needed now was a spark of the right wires. The locks would release. Everything from there was man-power.

She prepped the wires, holding them apart, but hesitated. Wraith caught it with glance back.

She breathed, “You smell it, too?” His eyes said yes. “Something in the air.”

Alina piped in over their bone-mics, “Corp-sec piping something in?”

“Not literally, Ali,” Widow replied.

There was a silence. All three knew something was about to go down. Their only hope was that they’d get in, get the routing codes and key-drives, and get out anyhow.

Wraith leaned into his rifle. Widow sparked the wires. Ozone nipped at their nostrils. All at once, the dozen bolts spaced along the vault door thunked from gravity’s pull. The door came loose. Good ol’ man-power and perseverance pushed it open. Widow slipped in alone. SOP; always leave one-man outside in case things went sideways. She couldn’t help feeling it wouldn’t matter this time.

She hurried through the vault for the carts of various bit-currency repositories. They were like old-era hard-drives, but bigger, more sophisticated, and built stronger than black-boxes. They had to be; they read, wrote, re-read, and re-wrote data a billion and more times each day, storing transaction lists, balances, routing and account numbers for near-on every First Trust member in the world. At last count, that was something four-hundred million people. A large percentage were multiple-account holders. An insignificant percentage stored more than the rest combined.

Something like twenty trillion credits existed in the world. Half of that was within First Trust’s vaults. The total value of Widow’s vault was said to be a few hundred billion. Taking them all wasn’t an option. It would’ve taken a crew of ten with a pair of troop carriers.

She kept on-mission, located the target cart, grabbed at it. The plan was to wheel the thing straight to the employee entrance at the lobby’s rear. They were risking exposure, sure, but by then the job would be near enough to done that there was no going back.

The cart slid back, around, angled for the door. The lights flared on. The vault door went into lock-down. It slammed closed with an earthquake. The bolts fired into place. Wraith dove out, away, only barely avoided being crushed. Everything happened so fast Widow was stunned. Before she could react, she was locked in the vault.

A voice sounded somewhere overhead, “Send your Doe my regards in hell.”

“What the fuck!?”

Smoke began pouring in. Acrid. Sulfur. Mixed with something like cyanide. Filling the room. Yellow. Stinking like hell.

“Shit.” She took a deeper breath, rubbernecked the vault. “Shit.”

Alina radioed in, “Wraith’s working on the door. You’ve got 30 seconds before the air’s too toxic to breathe. Get low. Slow your heart. Deep breaths. We’re getting you out.”

Widow was already coughing. Sulfur stung her eyes and nose. Cyanide burned her skin and lips. A slow, rolling laughter sounded above. Reality dimmed. Widow wanted to breathe, knew she was better off suffocating. Seconds passed like hours. She fought to push the cart to the vault door, almost completely unaware of it.

The world spun. She couldn’t help it now. She coughed, choked for air. Her breaths were fiery knives. Her eyes were blind from acid-tears streaming agony down her face. She stumbled, slumped against the cart.

Reality flashed past:

The vault door, open. She writhed, floating. Metal-panels. Ceilings. Rolled past. Gunfire echoed nearby. Casings bounced off her boots, stung through her pants. She choked on sweet air, but reality still faded. The last thing she saw before losing total consciousness was the hovering flit of shadows.

She awoke to find Wraith standing over her, arms crossed. Alina’s bright eyes were dark beneath their sockets, but wide in relief.

“She’s up!”

Widow didn’t need Wraith to speak to hear his, “no shit.”

“Hey. You alright?”

Wraith started shining a light in her eyes. She smacked it away, “Get that fuckin’ thing outta’ my face–”

“She’s fine.”

“I know who you are,” Widow said, finding herself inexplicably pissed. “The fuck happened?”

“Doe screwed us,” Alina said. The “no shit” air returned. Ali headed it off. “Sent us in figuring we wouldn’t have a hope in hell. Then hoped if we did, we’d still hand over the data.”

“And? Did we get it?” Widow asked easing herself up.

She found herself home, at the divest of dives, something they called The Grobe. It was like if someone built a hotel to be condemned, never got around to finishing it, then by some quirk of fate, it ended up that anyhow.

Wraith smiled, “Yeah, but we didn’t hand it over.”

“What!? Why?” Widow choked, fearing for their reputation.

“Fuck ‘im. Tried to play us with bad intel. No crew worth their salt would blame us.”

Alina added, “And it’s a message to the other Does that we won’t take being screwed.”

The room slid into silence. Widow slowly tried to reconcile facts, that against all odds, she was alive. She shook off the last of her fatigue and sat up on the edge of her bed. “So what happened to the creds?”

More silence. This time Alina and Wraith share a wickedly smug grin. Suddenly, she knew why.

And she grinned too.

Energy and Matter: Part 12

12.

Innocence Lost

The next days were a blur. Eventually, Hailey found herself in line with Valerie’s sentiments on hate. Part of her truly hated Miller and Rachel for the beatings, hated Valerie for allowing it. She trusted them though, almost inexplicably, and sensed it would pass.

At times, she found herself pushed so hard she left her body entirely. Life ceased. She retreated into the ether, watched herself fighting– losing, winning– from on-high. Half in The Link. Half out. More than once she thought herself dead, experiencing a very real hell. She only re-centered afterward, when autonomously eating, showering, or falling into bed devoid of energy and unable to think.

Like her, Elise was finding her place and pace, peace of mind. Training honed her focus, allowed her to surpass Yaz’s expectations. She was glad, but cared only to see her parents again. That could only happen through Yaz’s training, when she became the fighter Yaz expected. If she didn’t, seeing her parents only put them in harm’s way.

The two girls still hadn’t spoken, save in passing, when Elise found herself stepping into a shower after training. Behind her, Hailey entered the bathroom. Neither was sure what to do. Elise shut the stall door, twisted the shower on, and soaked her aching muscles. Hailey paused mid-step as she entered the bathroom, was compelled back to action when the water started.

She undressed and entered a shower-stall in silence. Fiddled knobs gave way to an undeniable tension beneath drumming water. Elise sensed it, knew Hailey had too. She sighed silently, its presence stabbing their chests, and immersed herself in water, hoping to find a sentiment to shatter the tension. Hailey graciously obliged.

“I know you don’t hate me, Elise.” Displaced water said Elise straightened to wash herself. “I don’t blame you for being angry. I just… don’t want to lose my best-friend to something beyond my control. If there’s something I can do, please, tell me.”

Elise was too tired for anger. Her limbs and mind were weighted by hot water. She had no energy to breathe, she couldn’t be angry. She didn’t hate Hailey anyway, but nothing could be done. The more she lied, said otherwise, the worse things would get.

But Yaz was right too; her anger affected more than her alone.

She said nothing, shut off the shower, and stepped out to towel. She redressed and stood before a sink to stare at herself in a mirror. Hailey’s shower shut off, more quietly than normal. She appeared behind Elise in a towel, hesitated, then began to dress. She was ready to leave when Elise spoke.

“I don’t hate you, Hailey.” She pivoted slowly to face Elise. “I know none of this is your fault. Lying won’t help. Even then, I won’t. I am angry at you. It’s not rational. It’s not fair. But I am. Being stuck here isn’t our choice, but you don’t have to fight for a place here. There are answers here for you. For me there’s just… a void I can’t fill.”

Hailey hesitated again, but repeated her question, “Is there something– anything, I can do?”

Elise shook her head. “No. I need time. You’re my friend and I love you. And I know, if things were reversed, you’d still be here. But there’s no magical cure. Just time.”

She piled her clothing under an arm, stepped past Hailey. The door to the bathroom shut. It echoed in waves that shook Hailey’s core. She willed away pain; she hadn’t lost Elise, not completely. She wasn’t sure either one had time, but she’d give her all she could. She’d never wanted a cure-all, just some affirmation, good or bad. She had it. Expecting more was ungrateful. Grieving was unfair, too; as a Seer, it affected more than she alone.

Hailey took the empty corridor to her room, feeling increasingly like the Omega Man. The bunker felt desolate. An immovable dread clouded over it, just out of sight– even for a Seer. Hailey sank into sleep, hoping morning would change things. It didn’t. The cloud took residence over the bunker, following Hailey through the next few days and spreading to others in the interrum.

She found herself more guarded than ever. Valerie and the other Seers sensed it too. They pushed Hailey further, harder, sensing her training would need to be complete, total. They forced her to concentrate, to fight, long after she should’ve collapsed. She allowed it, more driven than ever. Her endurance, already far beyond what it had been, increased ten-fold. The last, blurred days gave way to more of total blackness. The more she tried to comprehend them, the more incomplete they became.

The cloud finally burst as she was lying on her bed, utterly exhausted and battered from telekinetic combat training. To say her body hurt missed the extremity of the damage it had learned ot endure. Her mental fatigue left her in a perpetual trance, a breath from the Link.

A knock sounded, but the door opened anyway. Yaz appeared, “Training room. Now.

She sat up, but Yaz was gone, the door open. Hailey fell to her feet, drug herself out, limbs trembling. She entered Yaz’s training room to find Miller and Rachel with she and Elise clustered at a corner. Hailey’s body quaked, shot pain through and along it.

She stepped up to the open cabinet and the group around it. Before she could speak, Miller forced a vest on her, pressed a comm in her ear. Beside her, Rachel mirrored the motion. Miller turned back to the cabinet, grabbed a weapon out, slapped a magazine on its upper section. He pinched back a bolt, and stuffed a comm in his ear to hustle past for the door. Rachel hurried after him.

Yaz passed Elise a vest and a weapon, eyed Hailey, “You had weapons training?”

“A little. Not much. Why?”

Yaz shoved a gun into Hailey’s arms. “P-90.” She pointed to the barrel, then the trigger, “Point. Shoot. Aim that end at the bad guys.”

Elise stuffed an ear-piece in, tested it. Yaz affixed her sheathed sword, then snapped a leg-holster on, her pistol in it. She angled past them, then started off.

“Wait!” She begged, hustling after her. Elise kept pace with her. “What’s going on?”

They headed for the elevator, “Your parents.” They stopped to await its return.

“What about them?” Elise asked.

“The Hunters are moving. Jenna and Ken have confirmation. They intercepted radio traffic–” She forced them onto the elevator before it locked in place, immediately launched it upward. “They’re taking your families in. We’re not waiting. We’ll move to secure them, then deal with the Hunters.”

Elise’s eyes nearly exploded. “What!? What the hell d’you mean “secure” them?”

They arrived in the cabin, pushed through and out. Yaz led into the back of the pick up. The cap and gate closed as they settled against the wheel-wells. The truck spun and groaned, lurching through brush for the road.

“Yaz?”

She sat at the tiny, mobile command center, keying in info on a sat-map. As expected, they weren’t more than a few miles from Bacatta-proper. Technically, they were still in town, but far enough that Yaz’s fears were obvious. They might be just far enough not to make it in time.

“Yasmine!” Elise shouted.

“We’re bringing them in,” she growled, focused elsewhere. “It’s time. They need to know the truth. They won’t like it. They will resist. You need to show them you’re safe. That they won’t be if they don’t follow us.” She turned, eyed Hailey, “Make sure they understand the gravity of the situation.”

Hailey recalled her parents’ remote grief and nodded.

“I’ll make sure they come with us,” Elise said, less confident than she let on.

The ride was tense. Between her vest, gun, and comm, Hailey found it impossible to sit comfortably. A racing heart didn’t help. All that kept her from total panic was the emotional control she’d garnered from Valerie’s training. If any of that training was to pay off, it was now or never.

She wasn’t sure what would happen, but that seemed the point. Her actions weren’t to be second-guessed. They were meant to be reflexive, fluid. As much second nature as Link-activation or mindfulness. Hopefully, shit hitting the fan meant she’d dodge before realizing she needed to– metaphorically or otherwise.

Bacatta-proper appeared in a blur of headlights, and Yaz’s commands,“Hailey’s closer. They’re likely to go for the Seer’s family first.”

Hailey’s heart rose in her throat. Elise grimaced across the dark bed, “I’m sure they’re fine.”

She was silent, focused on retaining control of her emotions. Losing her wits helped no-one, her parents least of all. Losing control meant losing her power. That might be all that stood between her parents and certain death. She screwed up her face, breathed, mind on her heart. Beneath her, the truck rumbled and weaved. The city outside was in its night rhythms, subdued chaos of life and breath. Hailey sympathized.

An undeniable aura had appeared in her absence. For the first time, Hailey understood the world for what it was. It wasn’t a fixed entity. Rather, it was countless entities– organisms within organisms, pulsing, undulating, vibrating, moving as one. There was movement within movement, even in the most immobile things. Her power revealed the world for what it was; nested hives of activity, energy, the only differences between the iterations, volume, density.

She was suddenly humbled, and oddly at ease. An intense knowing overcame her; it would all turn out– not necessarily right, nor wrong, but some way. Despite the dread, the tension, the indifferent world, she was where she needed to be. Anywhere else would’ve been wrong– the wrong place, the wrong time.

She was ripped away from her thoughts by the truck skidding to a stop. Yaz was out, sword and gun drawn. Elise and Hailey piled out. The semi-darkness of suburbia outside Hailey’s home was familiar, but felt decidedly foreign. So much had happened the past weeks that Hailey longer recognized home. Indeed, her empathic power said it felt the same.

The group advanced to the front door, single-file, and lined up outside. Hailey centered herself in the line, ready to rush in, gun spraying. Yaz gave a silent three count. The screen door was thrown open. Miller kicked the inner-door off its hinges. They charged in, weapons shouldered. The rest followed. Shouts erupted. Miller and Yaz stopped short.

Hailey pushed toward the front. Her father’s face went white behind the dining table. Her mother gasped, ready to sprint forward as Yaz spoke.

“They’re not here,” she said, eyes wide.

Elise swallowed hard. “My parents!”

She bounded for the truck. Rachel and Yaz hurried after her.

Miller stood in place beside Hailey, “We need to move, kid.”

“What’s going on here?” Her father demanded, more confused than caustic.

He rushed over to hug her, but Hailey forced her back, “We need to go. Now!

“What’re you–”

“Mr. Ferguson, if you do not follow your daughter this instant, I will have to subdue you and drag you along. We do not have time for a reunion.”

He looked open-mouthed between Miller and Hailey. She pulled at her mother, half-dragging her down the stairs. Miller waited a beat, ready to move. Her father swallowed, followed. Miller ran vanguard. Yaz and Elise were in, ready to go. Hailey rushed her parents into the truck bed.

Miller climbed in, radioing, “We’re in. Go.”

“Honey, what’s going on?” Hailey’s father asked.

Miller glanced between the girl and her parents, “Make it quick, kid. We’re not done yet.”

“Who are these people? Where have you been? Why are you carrying guns? What the hell is going on here?”

“Dad, calm down,” Hailey said sternly. He looked ready to protest, then thought better of it. “Something happened. To me. I can’t explain now, but just listen, trust me.”

“Trust what?” Her mother asked through tears.

“Some very bad people are trying to find me and Elise. In order to try to get to us, they were going to use you.”

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” Her father asked.

Miller cut in, “It means, Mr. Ferguson, that if you don’t do exactly as we tell you, you may not survive the night.”

“Is that a threat?”

“No. Dad–” Hailey growled frustration. “Just do what we tell you, and you’ll be alright, okay? Please?” He wasn’t satisfied. She looked him dead in the eyes, “Trust me.

Her father sighed, clearly angry, but too shaken to fight. The truck skidded to another stop and Miller threw down the tail-gate.

“Stay with them,” Hailey ordered, clambering out. Miller knelt outside the tail-gate, weapon ready.

Hailey rushed the door with the others. Elise led the charge. She’d lived there her whole life, yet it had never seemed more foreign. Her tension and fear were palpable, even without ESP. They breached, Rachel in Miller’s place. A moment later, they mounted the stairs, weapons sweeping. Elise’s mother stood from the couch in the living room, hands up and instantly in terror. It took her a moment to recognize Elise before her face drained its color.

She choked on sobs, rushed to hug Elise. Her father appeared with a bat, froze, spied Elise, and dropped it to sprint toward her. They smothered her tearfully.

Yaz radioed, “We’ve got ‘em. Anything yet?”

“Nothing,” Miller radioed, scanning the darkness. “Still quiet.”

Too quiet.

Elise’s parents asked the same questions, demanded the same explanations, equally quelled by relief. All the same, they couldn’t stay. Yaz rounded them up. Elise maneuvered her parents outside, the group in a line with Hailey at the rear.

Horror sprinted along her spine. It hit her brain, unfurled along a dropping gut. She spun, ready to retch: Two figures appeared at the house’s far-side. Guns rose. Hailey barely felt herself yell. Time slowed. Muzzle flashes were flickers of lightning. Ammunition whizzed in trails. Miller pivoted, aimed. Hailey reacted, dropped to a knee. Her P90 rose. Trailing fire divided their line.

Time resumed. Elise’s father fell. Blood curdling shrieks revealed the fresh holes in his torso. Rachel screamed, landed on the sidewalk. Her arm and side flowed with crimson as she fought shock to aim. Yaz threw Elise down, pistol out. More gunfire crackled. Rachel and Elise’s screams were joined by another, cut dead a second later. Hailey’s body reacted. Her training kicked in. Her gun was spitting hellfire, popping in rhythm with Miller’s. The Hunters went down.

It was too late. Hailey turned, saw Elise scurry from beneath Yaz. She scrambled toward her mother, screaming, reaching toward her father. Her voice was muddled by saliva, mucus. Tears made screams incoherent. Their cause wasn’t. Elise’s hands bathed in red, applied pressure to her mother’s chest.

“Knew you were alive,” her mother said. “S-soldiering on.”

“No. No. No.”

Sirens blared in the distance. Her mother’s jaw clenched. An earth-splitting gasp rattled her. She relaxed; limp. Dead.

Hailey’s father dove out. He and Miller grabbed Rachel up, rushed her to the bed. Yaz grabbed Elise. She resisted. Hailey grabbed too, rubbernecking.

Yaz screamed. “They’re dead. You’re not.” Sirens wailed. “You can’t fight the Hunters from a cell. Get. Up. Now!

She jerked Elise up with immense strength, shoved her toward the truck. Hailey pulled her along, shoved her in, then sprinted back to the bed. Yaz piled in beside Elise, her cries silent, her face empty. Miller burned rubber as cruiser-lights appeared in the rear-view. He took the first turn he could, then another, driving a zig-zag toward the bunker at break-neck speed.

Yaz examined Elise for holes, found none. If she hadn’t been breathing, Yaz might’ve mistaken her for dead. She felt the fresh pain still stabbing at Elise’s heart. Words failed her. She did the only thing she could think to, held Elise’s hand in her own.

Missed Part 11? Read it here!

Poetry-Thing Thursday: Ever Surging

Energy and mass,
behind space-hardened glass:
a blast from the past,
and gift from the last,
generation that lived,
and might be forgived,
for the evils they did,
and the madness they hid.

But for now we speed on,
thinking of stars gone,
and suns we’d prolong,
if only with bong.
For even eternity’s short,
within proper court,
the kind we hold closed,
and kiss like a rose’d.

For in the end,
we have been a friend,
to those far behind,
though never in mind.
For we’ve blazed the trail,
both hands off the rail,
and even those yet to come,
will benefit greater than some.

Fear of our future’s passed,
from wisdoms amassed,
though frightful the mass,
of energy-glass,
and the sounds of vacuum,
or the silence it assumes,
for no matter the danger,
we’ve met no strangers.

And instead only greatness,
which in our wake’s less,
when matched with what,
we see ahead but,
is ever beyond,
our primordial pond.
So we carry on,
every surging,
ever anon.

Short Story: Preserving Society

I sat on my couch staring at a television that flickered with images like something from a nightmare. I kept hoping I’d wake up. The longer I waited to, the more obvious it became I wasn’t going to. That this was real. News reports were blaring, but the anchors’ tones were different. They mocked-mourning and sadness. Those emotions were nothing more than expertly crafted table-readings. It was sickening to behold, but I was too numb to notice.

The talking heads were doing what they did best. Talking. About another presidential assassination. They’d become more common in the last decades. People outright refused the position or title now. They feared the inevitable. No one blamed them. ‘Course, that didn’t keep the poor bastards’ heads from being splattered like dropped watermelons. Or their cars from being bombed. Or their homes. Or any of the other insanity the rebellion had taken to.

It was a difficult time. One of revolution. This was worse than any yet. Bloodier than the American revolution. Bloodier than the French Revolution. Any of the Arab Springs. Bloodier, simply by virtue of its battleground.

The U.S. was a hot-bed of dissent and protest. When those things inevitably failed the aggrieved, the riots started. It was difficult to say they ever failed. They never had a purpose. The eventual repercussions were no less undesirable:

Militias formed with growing frequency. States, counties, municipalities, embraced their rights, superseded the Federal Government where they could, because they could. That meant catering to the lowest common denominator– the loudest blatherers of so-called majorities regarding things more terrible than fair.

Eventually the National Guard got involved. Then, when they too, failed, the Army. It was the first time in history that our military patrolled to keep order. The truth was, there was never a snowball’s chance in hell it could. Everyone knew that. Even I did. Most of us “unaffiliated” just kept our heads down, noses to the grindstone. We started thinking or talking about leaving. It was just griping, at least in most cases.

Passports were denied en-masse soon after. It became obvious anyone wanting to leave wouldn’t have an easy time of it. The Feds wanted to keep everyone in-country, paying rising taxes for the forces oppressing them. Meanwhile the locals wanted sworn or blood oaths to defend their beliefs. Otherwise you were a spy. It was asinine, but then, it had been.

The first ripples of chaos came with the first presidential assassination. It wasn’t the only assassination at the time, surely wasn’t the last. The bloodbath hadn’t yet begun. Even now I doubt it’s at full-volume. Every time we think that, some bastards kick it up to a new eleven.

I was just a laborer. Just trying to feed my family. Occasionally I griped; about unnecessary security check-points, about guarded work-sites, about “wellness” stops on roads, and searches at every place of public gathering. But it was just that; griping.

The turning point was the talking heads’ first allusions to “refugee camps,” and “protective re-locations,” alongside “fears for our fighting men and women.” The euphemisms were thin. Smoke-screens. It was the beginning of a round up aimed at political dissidents, prisoners. People I knew began disappearing. Men I worked with– women too, gender didn’t matter– just up and gone. Sometimes, their lives and families went with. Sometimes, they didn’t. It wasn’t difficult to see the “protective re-locations” were involuntary.

Anyone not touting the Feds’ line were watched. It was like the Cold War Russia portrayed in the US media. Lots of dystopia. Lots of shadow games. Lots of state-sponsored murder. All the same, there was no denial of how bad things were. The disappearances were as much political maneuvers as insurance against further aggression. Fat lot of good it did in the end.

I didn’t know yet how it was happening. That is, how people were being picked from the crowds. I learned the hard way; a decade or so before before, we’d learned the government– our government– was spying on us. It was so wholly and thorough that the volume of information being collected could never be fully sifted. Not by humans. It was never meant to be. Instead, it was fed into a secret database. Every person was identified, profiled, and connected to the collected datasets. Phone transcripts. Emails. Forum posts. Illegal audio and video recordings. Every opinion, every thought, and every belief ever espoused within range of an electronic device was collected.

It’s not difficult to see where we were headed. Orwell was nearing a perpetual-motion disaster with all the spinning he was doing in his grave.

That night, of the fifth presidential assassination, I was staring at the TV, absolutely dead to the world. Dead inside. Dead, in that special way of one who’s endured more trauma than one has a right to– and yet is about to experience more.

If I’d known those would be my last moments as a free man, I might have done something more worthwhile. Anything more worthy of themselves. Instead, I stared at the TV. The talking heads drooled through the air between me and the box in stereophonic sound and 4k-ultra-high-definition.

The door to my living room exploded off its hinges. I barely blinked. I was a junkie nodding off. Filled brimming with drool and stoned by it. Nothing in the world could bother or affect me. The smoke hadn’t even cleared when the masked military team encircled me. They brandished rifles. Screamed unintelligibly. I knew enough: I was being “relocated.”

Turns out, “it was concluded I might present a security risk” given “adequate motivation.” When my wits finally returned, reality re-focused. I remembered my ages-old griping. It was the check-points and such. Everything I’d bemoaned was recorded, logged, later used as rationale for imprisonment.

The camp isn’t so bad, I guess. It’s no Ritz. No skid-row. But I can’t complain, really. We get three meals, a place to sleep. Freedom was nice, but it wasn’t for us. Not yet. We never cared for it. Maybe one day we’ll be willing to earn it again. Then again, who could fight for the insanity we left behind? Who’d want to?

Maybe the talking heads should do a segment on that; why’s society worth preserving in its current state? I’m not holding my breath or anything, but I’m betting if they did, they’d be hard pressed to find honest answers.

Energy and Matter: Part 11

11.

No More Games

It had been a few days since their last encounter that Hailey found Elise and a few others gathered in the kitchen. Yaz stood behind the bar, the group intensely focused on her. Hailey appeared within sight and Yaz motioned her over.

“Now we can begin.”

“What’s going on?” Hailey asked, eyeing the assembly.

“Something bad,” Rachel said beside her.

“This is gonna’ be a clusterfuck,” Miller added, elsewhere.

Unless we get ahead of it, yes,” Yaz affirmed.

Hailey was lost. She looked to Elise, and the pensive anger on her face. “Our parents.”

Hailey’s heart skipped a beat. “What about them?”

“Last night they met,” Rachel said. “I had a vision of it.”

“Rachel and I confirmed it later,” Miller added again.

She was confused, “I’m still lost. What’s it mean?”

Yaz replied succinctly, “In simplest terms, they’ve sought outside help to locate you. A private investigator. He is now under surveillance by Hunters.”

“What!?”

Rachel winced, “And they’re likely to take your parents hostage as bait.”

Hailey’s stomach rolled and tumbled. Bile made its acidic creep up the back of her throat. It stung her tonsils and sinuses. The world was ready to spin out of control. The only thing that kept her from collapsing was her now-minute emotional control. Valerie’s training had done that, at least.

She steadied herself on the bar, “Woah…” A deep breath saved her remaining nerves. “What do we do?”

Silence. Elise fumed. Hailey heard, and felt, air bursting through flared nostrils. For once though, it wasn’t directed at her. The group exchanged looks, then settled on Yasmine. She strengthened her stance, legs planted wide, and arms crossed at her chest.

“We’re going to turn the tide, use them as bait,” she said sternly.

“What?”

“It’s absolutely insane,” Elise growled. “They have no idea what’s going on.”

“Be that as it may,” Yaz said calmly. “It’s my call, and I’ve made it.”

“Wait. Wait,” Hailey said, waving a hand and stumbling over her words. “What the hell’re you talking about? Using our parents as bait? Why? How? Set a trap? How’s that fair? They know nothing. What makes you think the Hunters won’t just kill them?”

A small argument broke out. Elise jumped into a verbal dog-fight between Rachel and Miller, sided with the former. Hailey and Elise were on the same page, for once. They barked at both Miller and Ken, whom argued it might be the only way to learn anything.

Shut up!” Yaz snapped. The room was silent. “This is my call. I am in charge of security. Hailey. Elise. I understand your reservations, but this has to be done. Intel on the Hunters is scarce. Rachel was lucky to have spotted the pair running surveillance. We’ve already lost them.” Her eyes darted between the two girls, “Until I say otherwise, both of you are to step-up your training. I will inform Valerie immediately. Timing is crucial. You both need to be field-rated before the Hunters make their move. That could be any time in the next few days to the next few weeks.”

“Why rush field-rating them, Yaz?” Ken asked. “Putting them out there’s risking all of us if they’re not properly trained.”

Another argument was about to break out when Yaz’s eyes narrowed lethally. “I’ve already spoken to Valerie, Hailey’s progress is rapid. Miller; you and Rachel will go with her. Begin the last phase of her training. Elise is learning just as quickly. I will have her ready. If you doubt me, leave. I have no time for doubt or dissent.”

The group eyed one another, resolved to do as instructed.

Yaz watched them, “Good. Ken, pull Jenna in and take her with to run surveillance on the families. Find the Hunters. Keep them under observation. Lindsey and Jakob will be out to join you soon. Until the situation changes, patrols will double.”

A general affirmation gave way to a dismissal. Rachel and Miller headed straight for the training room with Hailey. Ken followed, broke off to head up and out of the bunker. Soon, only Elise and Yaz were left.

“Go to the training room. I’ll be in soon.”

Elise followed the others, passed them as they entered the Seers’ training room. She did her best to evade any backward glances. Hailey caught the resentment flowing past as the door shut on Elise. The trio took a place in the middle of the room. Yaz appeared, spoke to Valerie. Her hushed instructions were expected. Valerie listened quietly, then agreed to Yaz’s terms. A moment later, the tiny head of security was gone. Valerie strolled over.

“You’re to begin advanced training immediately,” she said, her confidence fierce. “It will not be easy. You will hate all three of us. You will have no energy to do so. Nor to continue training, but you will, because we will say to. When it is over, you will be a Seer with complete access to your power, a fully-realized potential. I will say this once, and once only; you are a promising student and will make a great Seer, but if you fear the immediate future, save us all the time and leave now.”

Hailey swallowed hard. This last phase of training would be extreme, as much a test of her will as instruction. She didn’t doubt Valerie’s sentiment, considering her penchant for honesty. She didn’t want to hate anyone, but Valerie’s eyes said it was unavoidable. Something in the others said they were about to destroy her– mentally and physically, break her down to rebuild her. If she’d been wearing a jumpsuit, she might’ve felt like Lee Majors.

As it was, all she felt was a duty to the people around her, and her parents. If she didn’t complete this, she could never protect them, let alone herself. She couldn’t allow that. Even the thought of it. Any purchase it took would become an unstable foundation under the weight of the future.

She screwed up her mouth, put on her best war-face. “I’m staying.”

“Miller, test the child.”

Valerie and Rachel suddenly backed off the gym mats. Hailey glanced sideways. A fist flew at her face. Before she knew it, she was on her hands and knees, spitting blood, her lip split. She rose to her knees. Miller threw a kick. Her instincts engaged. She rolled sideways. Miller hit air, lost balance. Hailey felt the same pull in her limbs she’d felt time and again; the Link.

She was on her feet, hand flat. A stiff chop hit Miller’s neck. He crumpled to the floor, out before he hit. Hailey rebounded in a low stance. Blood dripped from her lip. Adrenaline drugged her veins. Her pulse beat in the pressure points across her body. A shadow flitted at her right, forced her ‘round.

Rachel charged. An open palm went at Hailey’s chest. She leapt backward to dodge, failed. The force was immense. Hailey felt herself hit the cement wall across the room. She collapsed in a heap, winded, dizzy, utterly stunned.

Valerie was shouting, “Your opponent will not hesitate. Up!”

Hailey fell to her feet. Her whole body felt fractured. Rachel charged again. She closed the room’s distance in a breath. A moment later, fists pummeled her torso at full-strength with fury. Rachel reeled for a final kick. Hailey fell sideways, rolling. A grapple upended her, tossed her across the mats. She came to a rest near Miller’s unconscious body, staggered to her feet. Rachel was at her back, arm around Hailey’s throat, choking her.

She gasped, choked for air. Her nails clawed blood streaks into Rachel’s arm. The Seer completely blocked out the fresh wounds. Before Hailey knew it, her muscles engaged. She pivoted. Rachel flew over her, slammed her back on the mats. Hailey’s foot aimed for Rachel’s neck.

Stop!” Valerie shouted with a grating discordance.

The empathic projection doubled and tripled its resonance in the room’s poor acoustics. The force almost knocked Hailey off her feet. She staggered back, collapsed to a knee. Her body heaved, panting and throbbing from agonized bruises and minor gashes. How she was alive felt a mystery, but she sensed Valerie’s satisfaction. Somehow, Hailey’d once again surpassed her expectations.

Rachel climbed to her feet and offered Hailey a hand, “No hard feelings, okay?” Hailey swallowed blood and pulled herself up. She collapsed into Rachel, righted herself. “You okay?”

She nodded, regained her footing, and let Rachel kneel beside Miller to shake him awake. He suddenly sat upright and groaned.

“Good one, kid,” he said, rising to his feet.

The three stood before Valerie as she addressed Hailey, “You have excellent instincts, and your connection to the Link will ease the transition to fighting. You feel the pull, follow it. That is good. It will get you far. You will not survive on it alone however, so your training will now begin.”

In the room beside them, a similar scene played out; though Elise was much further advanced, Yaz found no reason to beat her so needlessly. Despite everyone knowing it was better to feel out Hailey’s instincts, Elise wasn’t a Seer. Apart from not having those instincts, she also might not heal quite so easily, at least emotionally.

Yaz had already taught her basic self-defense– the same any student would receive. Things would be tougher now, and more than that, they had to hurt. She’d produced a pair of wooden sticks shaped like swords and made of thick, bundled wood. Just about the only thing that didn’t hurt about them was holding them. They were ugly, heavy, and stung like hell when hit– Elise learned that the hard way.

The pair were running Yaz’s exercises, but the girl hadn’t broken a sweat. She was calm, calculated, testing as well as teaching. Elise was the antithesis. Her entire body was drenched. Clothing too. Her face and skin were red, blood raging from constant, snaps of the stick.

Yaz pressed her, forced her across the room in a flurry of crossed blades. Elise growled, forced her back. They danced in pursuit over sticks that tapped fast rhythms. Elise pirouetted. Yaz caught her, snapped her thigh. She fell to a knee. Yaz’s stick pressed at her throat, lifted her upward. Elise fumed, furious, both at her own failure and Yaz.

“You’re angry with me,” Yaz said, motioning Elise back into her starting stance.

She huffed through her nose, crossed her stick with Yaz’s, “Why shouldn’t I be?”

They started again. Elise fought with anger, her vigor unmatched. Yaz took each press and feint in stride. “Some things are still beyond you, Elise. Believe me when I say that.”

She made a flourishing spin aimed for Yaz’s legs, “Don’t try to take the high-ground. I know you better than that.”

“You know only what you want to.” She blocked, unbalanced Elise to break her attack.

Elise growled again. “Then teach me, oh great one.”

“Don’t be a jack-ass,” Yaz said, stepping back to await the next advance. “If you could separate yourself from your emotions, you’d understand: I neither came to this decision lightly, nor saw any worthwhile alternative.”

Elise lowered her stick, stormed across the room for a towel and a bottle of water. She wiped at her neck and downed a gulp with a huff. “I doubt that.”

Yaz sat in place on the mat, stick across her lap to breathe, “If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t be alive. Do not mistake stratagem for disregard.”

Elise whirled at Yaz, “What is strategic about using my family as a fucking hooked worm?”

Yaz closed her eyes, as if meditating. “We both know the only way to ensure your family’s safety is to keep the Hunters from reaching them. My teams are to intercept if they attempt to. Until then, keeping them in play means we might still retrieve intel. Anything even remotely telling of their structure and force must be secured. Otherwise, you will never return home.”

Elise turned back to the table her things rested on, braced herself against it. Her head hung. There was no denying Yaz’s logic, but anger was the only emotion she could manifest. Whether at herself or someone else didn’t matter. Had she not felt so impotent, so helpless, it might have been different. Unfortunately, things were so beyond her control she wasn’t sure which direction was forward anymore. All she knew was the feeling of being trapped in a bunker with a bunch of strangers training to kill people in her way.

Yaz appeared, laid a hand on her shoulder, “You can do this, Elise. I know it. You know it. Just keep training. Then, when the Hunters make their move, you’ll be there. But you can’t be if you’re not focused now.”

Elise let the words sink in. If nothing else, she needed to see things through. The alternative might be certain death. She had a duty to continue. If not to herself, then to her family– and in a way, to Yasmine. She slugged back more water and returned to training.

Missed part 10? Read it here!

Poetry-Thing Thursday: In Place of Dreams

I hear sirens in the distance,
over a foreground of dogs barking,
and the passing folly of man’s device.

They called us explorers,
when we reached this land,
then after rape and pillaging,
they called us masters–
And behind our backs, bastards.

Can’t blame ‘em, I guess.
Or at least, I don’t.
‘Cause in the end,
they’ll have their revenge.

We took this land by force, to reverie,
like we took their innocence.
They begged us only to till the land,
instead we cut and bled her, stole her purity.

They called us masters and bastards,
then the sun burned us down,
but we re-rose from the ashes,
and took earth as our own.

And now I hear sirens, and barking, and distant screams;
The latest of us to bake and broil in the evil we wrought.
In the end they got the last laughs,
and we nightmares in place of dreams.

Short Story: She Ran

Life for Twitch was a series of late nights, later mornings, and intoxicants strung together into perpetual night. She knew only darkness, sprawl lights, data hubs– and Chinese takeout. By this point, she was more Mu-Shu pork and fried rice than man or woman– though she’d never been much good at either. That’s not to say she wasn’t feminine. She could be, and was fond of saying “I can be feminine up to my ballsack.” Admittedly, it helped less than she liked.

Her physical assets weren’t anything astounding anyway: she ate like a starved horse but never gained weight. Would’ve given anything for tits– even fat-guy tits. Her ass was as flat as an old church pew. And she was five-two if she was a foot, and hadn’t grown an inch since eleven years old. Her hair was more amber, scarecrow-stuffing than golden flax, and her eyes more whiteish-gray than blue. Most of all, her waist kept to the eleven year old girl range, and not in a good way.

Even as a street kid, trading old tech gear as meltdown money for food, she’d been small. And “Twitch” was more than just an accurate assessment of her gaming skills. She was never much more than a squirrel in the headlamps around people. She’d taken to isolationism for multiple reasons, it was. And, isolation was simply easier. No need to bathe or dress if no-one was ever around.

She did have friends though, in the way anyone did nowadays. They were real people with real lives, too. Some weren’t dissimilar from her, save her “circle” never met face to face. That was about the only part of her life she didn’t mind.

She still scrapped tech occasionally, but her money was made in data hubs. She’d become a fixture in the area for info hacking. Nothing too serious. Nothing to piss off the corps. That was bad juju she didn’t need and wanted even less. Rather, she went for the usual stuff: Corp-Sec patrol comms. Cit-cam surveillance. Errant packets from open ports. Probing anywhere she wouldn’t be killed over, for a price.

Business wasn’t bad. Between light jobs and salvage trades– and outright luck– she’d even afforded her own dive. It wasn’t more than a bedroom over a Chinese joint– the same slowly ensuring her transformation into soy-basted fowl– but it was nothing to balk at. Occasionally, she even ran data retrieval for more legally-inclined associates and acquaintances.

The night things changed, Twitch was none the wiser. She’d slipped out, as usual, to head for a hub nearby and jack-in. The supernovae of night lights infected the scenery. Flashes of heat and ice emitted through waves of neon. The city sprawled out like walls of an ancient fortress on either side of her. Mazes of alleys and cross-streets split and wove through them, belching steam from their bowels and smog from their gullets.

The occasional gust from passing cars only reinforced Twitch’s feelings. Humanity had fallen. Was to be avoided as often as possible. Looking back, if she’d known what she’d soon face, she might’ve lingered more. Instead, she remained as apathetic as possible for a still-warm body. And thus, though not without reason, she was all the less prepared for reality when it crashed down.

She surfed the waves of humanity to her selected data hub; a coffee shop next to an alley with city infrastructure access. Jacking in there, she could kick back with a spliff, a few downers, and a cup of something passing for coffee. All that was left was riding the high across the net to cherry-pick whatever was needed to make a profit.

Something hit her. It slammed the side of her head like a freight train. She panicked: Neural Shock. Fried brains from overcharged skull implants. But no. Sure, they felt like literal blows to the brain, but left you instantly and forever worse off than stroke victims– if alive at all. They blew out the circuits in your brain. Fried its wiring.

Twitch panicked. Reason made her recover. She could think. She was alive… enough.

Something flashed in her face. She yelped, blind. By now a crowd of eyes were on her. She was completely oblivious to them. She stumbled to her feet, fell into a sprint. Whatever this was, it wasn’t funny. She fled into the street. Rain was falling, scattering neon-lit walls’ across the roads. Twitch tripped, face first into the street. Car horns screamed. She staggered back, lost, clutching her head.

Her vision returned as she scampered back onto the sidewalk. Cars screamed past. Muddled voices were all around her. She was suddenly aware of a crowd, fled. Her tiny figure spilled past and into an alley beside the cafe. A few seconds, and she was half-way down it. She tripped again, slid across the pavement. A message appeared, filling her vision: help me. She blinked, tried to force it away. It disappeared to reveal a body sprawled in the alley’s center.

The guy wasn’t much older than herself. He lay on one side, gut wound leaking into the wet alley. Blood flowed along a current of water rolling back the way she’d come, depositing somewhere ahead in the street. It was all Twitch could do not to flee in terror at all of the insanity occurring. For the guy’s sake, she forced herself to kneel. He groaned, sensing her presence and whispering something. Over. And over.

Twitch knelt in the stinking filth. She put her ear near his mouth. His waning breaths eeked out their message in syllables. They were slow, sharp. It made them all the more effective.

“They’re… coming. For us. They want the hackers. Dead. All of us. They’re coming for us…”

Her eyes widened. Terror trembled her limbs. Whoever they were, they’d done this. And they weren’t stopping with him. She thought to call for help, but feared who might answer. The life faded from his eyes too quickly anyhow. His voice went quiet. She did the only reasonable thing she could think; ran.