The Collective

1.

Declaration of War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now they were here.

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

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

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

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

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

The room went silent again from the dead and wounded.

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

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

“Wh-why?” The armored woman asked.

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

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

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

One way or another, an end would soon come.

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.”

3.

State of the Union

Lex headed back to the alley she’d come from. There was no doubt one of the few monitor-lackeys left had seen the murder. Even if they hadn’t, the bodies draining of blood on the sidewalk would be found soon enough. She kept calm, chose to leave, not flee. She feared neither discovery, confrontation, nor death, but couldn’t allow any yet. She’d seen her blades coated in the Collective’s blood, each of them deserving of the most brutal tortures. They would receive mercy instead; swift death, a kindness they did not deserve, but that Lex had no objections in granting.

Before the Sleep, Lex had never touched a sword nor even manifested anger. She’d never spoken out of turn, really. The Sleep’s long, lulling effects had a way of turning even the most gentle of creatures into raging monsters though. For her, it began with a simple question to her parents; why they’d seemingly abandoned her.

They hadn’t, they said– they were always home, always available. In truth, they were locked in their V-R worlds, chasing super-models or humping stallions, or completing mindless, trivial tasks that kept their headsets and neural nets locked in cyberspace. Being a young, precocious child whom wanted to experience the world, Lex felt she had no choice. She wished to see her family laugh, love, be together again, not stagnate in vegetation.

When she finally lashed out, she was oblivious to a new set of laws enacted regarding the technology and tampering with it. From a technical stand-point, they made sense. The VR tech and neural interfaces were far too complex to allow those untrained to alter them. Anyone whom wished to do so with malice could easily configure the tech to surge, fry a person’s brain, or even inject viruses into the cyber-worlds visited through them. Perhaps if Lex had known that she would have done things differently, but being a teenager and more stubborn by the day, there were no alternatives to her mind.

The fateful night determined her life’s course, was always heavy in her mind. It manifested as her feet compelled her through the zig-zag maze of Tokyo’s once-infested alleyways and streets. Fresh rain splattered the sidewalks. She tromped through puddles, rippled their reflected neon pinks, oranges, and countless, LED screens that shined from walls or vacant doorways.

As any neglected teenager, Lex had been angry. She’d lusted for boys, girls, friendship, commitment, purpose but found none. When she wished and begged for aid, she was shut out for the suckle of virtual teats in the vain hope of even a single, lowly drop of Mother’s milk. It kept the chaos outside at bay, but couldn’t keep Lex from her rage. Her thick make-up ran constantly, like an aging glam-rocker on-stage too long and greased with sweat and water. Still, her parents remained in their worlds, content despite their daughter’s pleas. She was forced into action, spiteful of the addiction that had claimed them. They’d withered to mindless, masses of flesh, husks of their former selves.

She stole a fire-axe from the building she lived in, a remnant of the fire-department era. With it, she did the only thing could; yanked the V-R head sets off her parents, smashed them against the floor, then planted the axe into the rear of each chair where their power sources were. The shower of sparks from the last swing arced electricity off the axe-head, snaked up the metal handle and into Lex. She landed, half-fired and unconscious.

The damage didn’t fully reveal itself until she awoke in a hospital room, one of few places people still gathered at the time. Things had changed since the invention of auto-diagnostic software. Home diagnosis of every possible medical affliction was no possible through the VR setups. Coupled with subscription pill services, even a cancer patient never had to see a doctor. Everyone merely allowed their V-R machines to send out data to external servers. Medications were automatically prescribed, shipped in, and installed by specialized drones that entered people’s homes at will.

Full-service, free medical care was the future, and it took– just like every other vise that kept the Sleepers’ bound to their chairs, atrophied them with mental stimulation. Whether they believed it or not, Lex was fighting for them. Their awakening would happen, come hell or high-water. Her own awakening in the hospital however, ensured she would never be one of the Sleepers.

The blaring white of a sterile room infected her eyes with the stink of bleach. Combined with a morphine drip in her arm, the fumes forced nauseated waves through her. She tried to sit up, found her wrists and ankles chained to either side of her bed. With a wail, a round, sympathetic woman rushed in, tended to her.

When Lex inquired about her parents, the woman went quiet, hands atop one another at her waist. She looked ready to speak when the door opened on a woman in a black skirt and blouse. Black, square glasses framed cold eyes that recessed in her face with bags and lines of premature age. She adjusted them as she entered, flanked by two GSS officers with rifles in hand. The woman gestured the nurse out, prompted her to rush away, eyes hidden as the two men guarded the door.

The businesswoman stopped at the foot of the bed, ensured the malicious point to her features was visible, then spoke with an English accent, “I am Calista Dahl, legal representative for Global Entertainment. We received word today that two of our machines were hacked. Indeed, when our security forces arrived, they discovered they had been– hacked to pieces, by a foolish little girl with an axe.” Lex opened her mouth as if to speak. The woman was quicker, “Your parents are dead. Your little stunt killed them.” Lex’s face fell away. She began to sob over Dahl, “You would have died yourself if not for luck. You should have. But now you will stand–”

The cries irritated Dahl. She took a few steps forward, planted a lone, hard smack across Lex’s face, then forced her chin forward to meet her eyes. Lex went quiet, teeth grit against the grip.

“You are hereby accused of crimes against Global Entertainment and its properties, and separately, for the manslaughter of your parents. How do you plead?”

She released Lex’s mouth enough for her speak; Her eyes narrowed, jaw clenched. She spit in Dahl’s face, “Go. To. Hell.

The beatings and imprisonment Lex was subjected to afterward would have hardened anyone. Instead of becoming a psychopath or a complacent slave– either malleable enough to be put down– she refined her strengths, convictions, planned for her eventual escape or release. The prison cell she occupied alone was one of few still used. Her appeal was made automatically by algorithms that took into account every possible variable of her crime, conviction, and behavior, concluded she would no longer present a problem.

They were wrong. Autonomous systems were like that; able to account for every variable, judge and determine whatever they wanted, but in the end, they knew nothing of the “human element.” Respiration, brain-wave patterns, heart-rate, everything could be monitored, but it didn’t change a human’s intuition. Had anyone seen one of their species wronged, ready to respond as Lex was, they’d have never let her go. Doing so was a grievous mistake for the Collective. Had they recognized the importance of her inability to sleep, they might have saved themselves.

Instead, she left prison, found others whom refused to sleep. In time her plans were laid, and her training complete. She became a weapon of steel and flesh. Her sole motives to survive became eliminating her parents’ real killers– those whom planted the machines in their brains. She was going to avenge every single person who had lost something, everything even, to the Sleep. The why was simple enough. The how was a river of blood just beginning to flow.

She stepped up a curb in the rain with a light slap of a boot, pulled open a door to an apartment building. She already knew where to go; top floor, last apartment on the left. The GSS would have only just responded to the first attack, would require time to connect the messages left to the need of protecting the Collective. Any reality otherwise was just more blood for the river.

She emerged on the top floor. Chrome doors gleamed along the hall’s low-light, reflected multicolored iridescence of neon and LEDs from beyond a nearby window. Building-tops outside were punctuated by the cool, deep blues of touch-screen panels along the hall’s doors.

Lex was prepared, had memorized the GSS master-codes her people had pulled from their private servers. When she reached the last door on the left, there was nothing to stop her. It slid open on an apartment that, like every other dwelling in Tokyo, resembled her former home. The only differences were in the few, luxury items afforded by the wealthy owner.

Her feet were quiet, dry by the time she entered. A light glowed beneath the bathroom door, said her target was readying herself for bed– or perhaps work, as was the way with the sociopaths and sycophants that now ran the world. Whichever her target was, she wasn’t sure, but it couldn’t matter with what was to come to them.

The door slid open on the face Lex remembered from so long ago. The eyes were warmer now though, more youthful, vibrant. The expression of shock on the woman’s face said she knew who Lex was, but there was a cower to her cries. Lex grabbed her by the tied robe, threw her further into the main-room of the apartment. The robe fell open to expose her night-time nudity, unfurled on either side of her arms and legs. She slid backward for the door on her hands. Lex’s boot was quick, held her down with a heavy foot.

Lex’s blades sang as they slid from their sheathes, “Where is Calista?”

“M-my sister?” The woman choked with an English accent.

“Your twin,” she affirmed with a level tone.

“I-I don’t know,” Dahl stammered. “I s-s-swear. I h-haven’t known since she was promoted to head of Global Entertainment.”

“You’re lying,” Lex said, a blade rising to press her throat.

The woman cried, “I’m not. I swear. God, just leave me alone!”

Lex pressed the blade inward, forced their eyes to meet, “Rachel Dahl; where is your sister?”

She swallowed hard, eyes and voice wet with sincerity, “I don’t know– b-but I might be able to find out.”

The blade at Rachel’s throat went lateral, forced a flinch that trickled blood down her neck. With it, Lex’s head tilted, “How?”

She swallowed hard again, “Com-computer. Email. I c-can schedule a m-meet.”

Lex snarled. The blade twisted to a whimper, “I thought you didn’t know where she was.”

Rachel squeaked a cry, “I don’t! I swear. I just know how to c-contact her.”

Lex’s dilemma was clear in her eyes for a moment. The blades lowered into their resting position and her boot rose from Rachel’s chest, “Get up.”

The woman’s feet slipped and slid as she rose, hugged her robe closed, “Wh-what are you going to do to me?”

“You’re going to get dressed and come with me,” she instructed. “And if for even a second I believe you’ve contacted GSS, you’ll be cut into so many pieces they’ll never find all of you. Is that understood?” Rachel gave a single, timid nod. The katanas whirled, re-sheathed. “Good. Now play nice, and get dressed.”

She followed Dahl, watched her dress in what once had been called street-clothes; jeans, T-shirt, long leather coat, and battered running shoes. Lex pulled Rachel’s hood up, instructed her to keep her face hidden, then stepped for the living-room’s center. After a few moments, she dropped a small, personal recorder on the coffee table and escorted Rachel out.

4.

Sibling Rivalry

The GSS team breached Rachel Dahl’s apartment with the same master code Lex had used. Late afternoon sun now shone through the hall’s window. With the GSS squad was Calista Dahl, whom entered and ordered the men to fan out, search for her sister. Contrary to her way, Rachel had missed work. With the deaths of Li and Kay still fresh, it was obvious something had happened to her. When she reached the coffee table, Lex’s recorded hologram engaged.

Lex’s hooded silhouette stood with Rachel before her, a blade out and poised against the woman’s belly to show Lex’s menace. The hooded figure began to speak, her voice garbled through encrypted filters to slow the GSS’ eventual analysis. It came through deep, as though she were half machine, half human, with emphasis on the masculine end of that spectrum.

“Calista Dahl; you stand accused of crimes against the people. Your sentence is death. Your only choice is to come quietly or watch your sister die with you. The terms are not negotiable. At the end of this message, an address will appear, come alone or she dies.”

Lex and Rachel fizzed out of focus, fell away in static to a few, stationary lines of text. The address was somewhere on the edge of Tokyo, just outside the city’s concentrated innards. Calista knew it well; the land was open, flat, with plenty of trees for cover. Distant buildings and their orientation made for poor placement of any long-range security details in all but a few spots, but she was certain the area had a maze of sewer lines that led into them. Her people could approach unnoticed, but the question remained of if she wanted to risk Rachel’s life. When faced with her own, certain death, her answer was emphatically yes.

Across Tokyo, Lex kicked open the door of an old, bamboo and grass shed. It had been designed to blend into the garden park. Once the home of a tender, his job, livelihood, and purpose had been stolen from him by the Sleep. He hanged himself in the center of the small, one-room hut, was only after days of baking in the hot sun made the stench so foul the park’s visitors took notice.

Lex was there when they cut him down. She’d been a devotee of the garden’s calming nature since before her incarceration. The old, half-blind and hunched grounds-keeper’s death was a proverbial cherry atop her frothing cream of hatred, spite. The Sleepers knew not what they did, weren’t to be faulted. Like all humans, they’d merely succumbed to their desires. Unfortunately, unlike most humans through history, they could be given no reprieve, nor even hope that they might lift themselves from the throes of addiction. It was, like most things nowadays, nearly impossible to wake the Sleepers without some sort apocalyptic event.

Lex drug Rachel to the shack by the binds around her wrists, tossed her inside and across it to kick the door shut. Rachel collided with the wall of rusted garden tools, hands out to save her face from being impaling by a claw-rake. She immediately rebounded with it in hand, swiped at Lex. Her arms were up. Lex pulled it forward with Rachel, whom stumbled to her knees. Lex’s fist collided with her face. She fell sideways in the dusty floor, bleeding from the lip and weeping. She sobbed, screamed, cursed. Lex replaced the rake, calmly pulled Rachel up.

“You’ll find attacking me is useless,” Lex warned. “I am faster, stronger, and smarter than you. Do as I say, and you’ll go free.”

“Liar!” Rachel shrieked with a raspy breath. “You’re crazy! You’re just gonna’ kill me anyhow!”

Lex pulled a chair from a corner of the room, scraped it against the dusty, cement floor, set it down with its back toward Rachel. She threw a leg around it to lean against the chair-back, look down on Rachel.

“If I wanted you dead, I’d have killed you when you opened the door to the bathroom,” she reminded. “Now, either quiet down and listen or I’ll gag you.” Rachel’s head hung sideways as she quieted, wet sniffles audible every few seconds. “Good girl. Now, there’s something we need to straighten out before we go any further– the notion that I am crazed.”

“You are,” Rachel argued with a tremor.

“No, no, no,” Lex said emphatically. “It’s important you understand that I am not, or else what’s happening won’t have proper context. This is like a composer in a world without music imagining notes, writing and playing them: in a world without music, the composer is a heretic, a loon, one that hears voices and sounds. In our world, he is a genius.”

Rachel angled a squiggled frown upward that punctuated her wet eyes, “Every nutcase thinks they’re a genius.”

Lex gave a long sigh with a shake of her head, “You’re missing the point.”

“I don’t need the context of a lunatic’s creation to know they’re insane,” Rachel spat. “You all have your stories, your reasons, and none of them change what you are.”

Lex watched her for a long moment as she leaned her chin against her forearms on the chair-back. The shack was quiet, tense. Rachel stared into Lex’s eyes, admittedly questioning her own judgment. There was something pained in them– somewhere beneath all the make-up, blood, and anger, a little girl wandered aimlessly for love, attention.

Rachel took a sharp breath, cast her eyes back on the floor. Lex nodded slowly to herself, “You know me– by reputation, if nothing else. I assume it was Calista, or your former position as head of the European Trade Union, that made you aware of me.” She took a breath, straightened in her seat, “Whatever it was, I know what you’ve done– what you did, anyhow. You went off the grid after you signed over your power– Europe’s power— to Viktor Steinsson and Ville Andersson– Swiss bankers extraordinaire.”

Rachel’s eyes rose again, more guilty than anything, “I did what I thought would protect the Union.”

Lex countered, “Or so you were led to believe.” She shook her head, “No, what you really did, and discovered for yourself soon enough afterward, was relinquish the only governmental control left to the Collective.”

“I didn’t—”

Lex was firm, loud, “You did!” Rachel’s throat squeaked from a sharp breath. Lex softened, quieted, “I don’t fault you for that. And in fact, provided you’re agreeable, you’ll be the only one of the Collective left alive when I am done. You are part of them in name only. I intend to coat my blade in the blood of the twelve, but I would rather see it be eleven if it means acquiring an asset. ”

Rachel was silent and still for a moment. Then, with a hard swallow, she met Lex’s eyes again, “Why?”

Lex rose from her seat to pull Rachel up, set her into it. She leaned against a table beside her, “Your sister’s crimes are irredeemable. To some, yours are too. But not to me. I know you were coerced, because I know your sister.”

She shook her head, “She’s not the monster you make her out to be.”

Lex leaned forward in a hunch, her arms crossed, “We both know she’ll sacrifice you for herself tonight without a moment’s hesitation.” Rachel’s eyes met the floor again, her hands twisted in the binds to tense against one another. Lex straightened, “You have a choice, Rachel. Maybe not much of one, but one nonetheless. Provided you choose appropriately, you will live. Either way, Calista will die tonight. There is no stopping that. It is inevitable. Imminent. Blood of kinship may mean something to you, but know it means nothing to her. If you look deep enough, you’ll see that truth.”

5.

The Exchange

Lex stood in the park’s center, beneath a clearing in the trees that made her visible to any possible angle a sniper could have in the buildings above. It was a show of strength and lack of fear; even Calista wouldn’t be so stupid as to take a shot before Rachel was secure. Beside Lex, stood the captive with her hands still bound, looking none the worse for wear. She rubbernecked the building-tops with a furtive glances and fidgeting nerves. She’d never seen anyone murdered, didn’t care to start now. All the same, Lex stilled her with a word.

“Stop,” she instructed sternly. “You will be fine.”

Rachel was adamant, almost begging at light-speed, “Look, I know who you are. I knew when I saw you. If you let Calista move her men into position, they’ll kill you! You don’t need to seek revenge. You’re smart, talented. Don’t die over some petty grudge.”

Lex’s eyes met Rachel’s. With a shuffle of fabric and metal, Lex drew a sword from her back, brought down. Rachel swallowed hard. The blade met the binds on Rachel’s wrists, cut them free. She nearly fainted as the sword fell to its downward-point, joined soon after by the other.

“I told you; if I’d wanted you dead, you’d have died in your bathroom,” Lex said as she faced the forward area.

Rachel rubbed her wrists, “Alexis, don’t do this.”

Lex’s eyes narrowed, grip on her blades steady, “Don’t call me that.”

“Please,” Rachel argued. “I see it in you. I know you want revenge for your parents, but it wasn’t Calista that did this. It wasn’t any of the people you’ve killed or plan to.”

Lex’s tongue was acidic, her eyes forward, “Quiet. They’re coming.”

Protest perched on the edge of Rachel’s lips but her eyes followed Lex’s. Calista appeared in gleaming heels and jet black, silken skirt and blouse. She followed the downward slope to the central garden with a saunter that owned the place, was above it. Undoubtedly her sniper’s were already in position, but she made no inclinations toward them. Instead, she stepped, one foot before the other over the soft clicks of heels on earth, stopped just out of reach of Lex’s blades.

Smart, but not smart enough. Lex smelled her fear, a terror that said perhaps the snipers weren’t enough. If only she knew.

Calista’s face finally emerged from the shadows thrown cross-wise from old, dirty flood-lights and Tokyo’s general aura. The lines and bags of her eyes had doubled, expertly hidden by more make-up than any woman should own. Somewhere beneath all the cover-up and faux-toned blush was a good-looking woman, albeit aged. The beauty was as lost as any claims she had to mercy.

Calista recognized Lex with a serpent’s smile– wicked and cold, “Alexis Thorne, murderer. I knew they should have never let you out.”

Lex was quiet. Rachel begged, “Calista, don’t. We don’t need more blood. Leave.”

“Shut up, Rachel,” her sister barked, eyes locked on Lex’s. “The whole world’s seen what you did to Li and Kay. They had to clean Li’s intestines off the side-walk with a shovel.”
A corner of Lex’s mouth tensed smugly, “It’s a good look for him, if you ask me.”

“No one did,” Calista countered. “In fact, no one knows it was you. Not officially. So whatever message you meant to send is lost.”

Lex’s head gave only the smallest tilt, barely visible, “The people don’t need a message, they need a wake-up call.”

“And you believe killing me will do that?” Calista condescended.

“Among other things.”

“Rachel,” Calista said, eyes never leaving Lex’s. “Go. There is a car waiting outside the park.”

Rachel refused to move. Lex finally cast her a look, affirmed with a nod. Rachel began to inch forward. She was just past Calista when a single shot rang out through the park. In a blink, Lex was in the air, blades spinning with her. Calista breathed; the shot was off. Something had happened to the sniper team. She should have known, prepared. In a flash, she had a pistol out. Lex landed her front-flip just as the gun leveled on her. The blades went up, in. The woman’s body hunched forward, half-suspended. The gun fell from a limp grip.

Lex snarled an inch from Calista’s face, “You should have stayed hidden.”

A sound of bone crunching gave way to a gasp. The blades spun a quarter-circle, wrenched through organs and ribs, slipped out with a river of blood. Calista fell to her knees, crimson flowed from her mouth, down her chin. She slumped sideways, dead.

Rachel was frozen, had turned in time to see the gun slip from Calista’s waist-band and everything after. She hurried toward a Japanese maple, fell to all fours and vomited. Lex stooped down for a clean swath of Calista’s clothing, wiped the blood from her blades. She rose, sheathed the swords, then made for Rachel near the tree.

The newly singular twin fell sideways, her back against the tree. She wiped her mouth, couldn’t bear to let her eyes grace her sister’s corpse ahead. It was too much. She’d been a twin her whole life, and now, she was nothing. She and Calista were even closer than sisters could be. Every important moment of their lives had been shared. Now she was dead. Rachel was alone.

Lex knelt beside Rachel with a metal flask from her coat, “Here.” She unscrewed the top, “It’ll help. Trust me.”

Rachel couldn’t think. She took the flask with an autonomous movement, downed the pungent liquor inside. It was something old, vintage, nothing like the synth-ahol they made now. More than likely Lex had raided an old distillery, or even someone’s basement. All the same, it warmed Rachel, settled her nerves enough to think. It was good; Lex needed Rachel to think, but rationally, not emotionally.

Her voice was calm, softer than normal, “Listen to me Rachel; you’re in shock, but it’s important you listen.” Rachel nodded autonomously. “Good. You only saw this because Calista ordered her people to kill me with you still around. She had no intention of honoring the deal, trading herself for you. She was ready to risk your life for her own. I’ve no doubt if it truly came to it, she’d have chosen herself over you. Somewhere inside, you know that. Accept it. Now is the only time you can. You’re going to be angry soon, at me, but at her too. You’re going to wonder why she did this. The truth is, it was because she was selfish. Nothing more.”

“Sh-she… was my sister,” Rachel breathed.

Lex leaned in carefully, “And that meant much more to you than to her, Rachel. Accept it.” Lex rose, straightened, “You have a choice now, one no-one can make for you, but that you must make soon. You can come with me, help me fight the Collective, or you can return home. If you do leave, you have to accept that any protection Calista’s kinship afforded you is gone. More than likely, the surviving members of the Collective will have you arrested and interrogated. If you know anything about their methods, you’ll know it’s torture. I can offer amnesty. They’ll offer treachery. The choice is yours.”

Lex turned away, began the walk back across the garden for the shack they’d occupied. As much as she’d been wrong to kidnap her, Lex’s predictions had been accurate. Combined with the obvious logic in her assertions about the rest of the Collective, Rachel saw little recourse but to follow Lex. Otherwise, she’d be subjected to more, unimaginable horrors than anyone had in decades. Whether or not Calista had done so out of malice, or sheer ignorance, Lex was right; she’d risked her sister’s life for selfish, self-preservation. It wasn’t a stretch to believe she’d have sacrificed Rachel entirely if it came to it.

As difficult as it was to admit, her sister had been ready to kill her to live. The only real choice left now was whether to put her anger where it belonged; on those that had turned her sister into a sociopath. The Collective might as well have put the blade in her themselves. They’d rotted away Calista’s mercy, innocence, and more importantly, her compassion. Were it not for their influence, the world might be better off. Perhaps Lex was right about that too.

Rachel took another swig from the flask, winced at the fire it set in her mouth. She rose on weak limbs, stumbled back toward the shack. She only kept herself from falling in to it by firm grip on the door. She slammed it behind her, swayed with a sickness in her limbs and gut.

Lex watched her feet plant, back straighten, “Alright. I’m in.”

6.

Follow the Money

Lex stood in the center of a basement hideaway that smelled of damp mold. It was poorly lit by a few, LED lamps on tables and a desk. A large cable-spool formed a make-shift table between she and Rachel whom sat in a stinking couch. Its tattered edges said it was decades past its expiration date. Around the room were men and women dressed like Lex, blades at their back and eyes fixed on her attentively. The fresh scents of blood and sweat mingled with an organic putrescence that told of recent murder; at least a few of the group had been in the Garden, their blades recently wet with the blood of Calista’s snipers.

In the table’s center, a holo-projector splayed the faces of three people into the air. Rachel knew them all by reputation, if little else. Two men and a woman, all three well-known public figures.

“In order to bring the Collective to its knees, we need to stem their flow of money,” Lex said to the assembly. “The first target is this man, Ryota Tanaka.”

One of the faces took the place of the others. The Japanese man looked to be in his mid-forties, but the graying of his hair, and sagged corners of his eyes said he might be much older. Undoubtedly, he was one of the Collective’s elders whom long ago received the anti-aging drug, and halted their biological aging in its path.

“Hiro. Kaz. Tanaka is your mark,” Lex said to two of the faces in the room. “Each night he dines at the Kobe Ranch, one of the few non-synthetic cuisine restaurants left in the city. The place is largely empty, but heavily guarded. Be prepared. As soon as you enter, you’ll have his men on you.”

The man and woman bowed their heads respectfully to her. Turned for the basement’s exit.

“Ryo, and Yang-Lee,” she said to two men. The image changed again; the blonde woman in her late fifties with heavy, Anglican features from a Germanic heritage– or something near it. Lex confirmed it, “Your target’s the German investment banker Ava Martz. She will be meeting with her ex-husband to exchange their children at his apartment uptown. Yang, you will escort Mr. Martz and his children to Ava’s awaiting limousine and commandeer it while Ryo completes the hit. See to it that they’re taken somewhere safe and report back once the job’s finished.”

Yang’s scarred face had seen its share of violence, was obscured in shadow from a bow mirrored by Ryo beside him. They turned to leave, disappeared as Hiro and Kaz had. Lex scanned the remaining faces in the room, then her eyes fell to Rachel, “Ms. Dahl, you will accompany me to capture and interrogate this man.”

The final image overtook the others; a man in his mid-thirties. There was something vaguely Scandinavian in his ice-blue eyes, an almost formal-lethality to his pointed features.

“Ville Andersson,” Rachel said.

“Correct,” Lex replied. “Tell me what you know about him.”

Rachel sat forward to a whiff of mold, “Swiss banker. Youngest member of the Collective. He runs money through various would-be legitimate organizations and charities, all of which are tax-dodges. The Collective donates roughly all of their profit through him, allows them to evade any tax laws. Then, it’s stored in his private vault in the Alps.”

Lex was impressed. Rachel judged by the room’s silence that most others were as well. She refocused, “Very good. Then you understand why we must capture him and extract the vault’s location and security details.” Rachel swallowed hard, nodded. “Good.” She looked to the others in the room, “Rachel and I will secure Andersson and report what we learn as soon as possible. Until then, stay vigilant.”

With that the assembled parties dispersed. Most left through the basement entrance. The others sank deeper into its shadows or labyrinthine blue-print. Soon, only Rachel and Lex were left in the main room. Lex deactivated the projector as Rachel rose from the stinking couch.

“Alex–” Lex glared. She corrected herself, “Lex. Why me? Why not someone more capable?”

Lex was firm, sincere, “Because I don’t trust you alone with my people. And recognizing you will confuse Ville long enough for me to eliminate his security detail.”

Rachel chewed her bottom lip, “You killed my sister. Then you have the nerve to say I’m the one that can’t be trusted?”

The tendons in Lex’s jaw tightened, shone through what light dotted her face, “Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness. You’re valuable– to us, and to the Collective. At least if you’re here, you’re more likely to remain intact. But don’t think for a second I won’t cut your throat if I suspect treachery.” Lex stepped past Rachel, shoved her way out the door and into the rain, “Come on, or we’ll be late.”

A quarter of an hour later the two stood beneath an awning in a central district of town.Neon and LED shines sliced through the endless, warm down-pour. Clearly whatever force controlled the Pacific’s Typhoon season had seen fit to unleash an early attempt to drown the city. In its midst, both Lex and Rachel were caught, the latter soaked to the bone for lack of the former’s leather coverings.

“What do I do?”

“If our intel is accurate, in five minutes Andersson’s limo will arrive outside that building,” she said with a nod to a massive, television broadcasting building across the street. “He’ll be ready to review the latest advertising numbers and ensure they match with his projections.”

“And you want to get him before he goes in,” Rachel surmised.

Lex replied with a sole nod, explained, “The attacks on the three Collective members will be synchronized to ensure any security response is chaotic, disorganized. With too many places to be at once, it will take the GSS that much longer to deploy.”

The two women went silent under the gentle cascade of rain and tinny downspouts that mixed with near-audible shifts of the LED screens above. Together the sounds formed discordant symphonies of nature and technology.

Distant tires splashed beneath a quiet, electric whir. Lex rocketed into the shadows of a dumpster’s alcove across the street, hunkered down to wait for her opening. The limo splashed into view, rolled up outside the station’s brightly-lit entrance. A door opened on the rear, passenger-side; three men stepped out with large rifles, formed a wall around the door. A lanky, blond-haired man emerged behind.

A subtle movement from the shadows Lex occupied signaled Rachel. She started forward in hysterics. She stumbled across the road, groped for and around the limo’s trunk. The rifles trained on her as she blubbered incoherent cries over the security detail’s shouts. Andersson recognized the more youthful of the Dahl Twins, waved off his guards to grip Rachel’s arms. Lex watched, waited. They exchanged frantic words, the security detail distracted with their eyes locked on Rachel.

Lex slipped around the corner, sidled along the building. No-one noticed her, not even Rachel. She sobbed about Calista’s murder, enthralled the four men. Lex moved from cover, drew her blades slowly. In a flash, two of the three guards were decapitated. Their feet slipped, bodies fell in writhing seizures. Blood spurted from stumps of former necks. The katanas angled back for the third man. A foot dislodged his balance. He smacked the limo’s side. The blades went into his torso, out again to shatter the vehicle’s side-window.

Andersson stumbled back, tripped over the curb. He soaked his back-half in a puddle as he scurried back on his hands. Rachel retrieved a GSS rifle, trained it on Lex. There was an obvious moment of conflict before she swiveled, aimed the gun on Andersson.

“Ville,” Rachel said. Lex stomped past, re-sheathed her blades. “We need to talk.”

Lex grabbed the man’s lapel, planted a heavy fist against his face, and knocked him out cold.

7.

Interrogation

Ville Andersson hung from a chain under a leaking water pipe. Between the rancid water that ran down his exposed upper body, the puddle beneath him, and his still-wet pants and socks from the rain, there wasn’t much of him left dry. Lex planted a heavy slap across his face to rouse him.

He shook awake, “What the hell? What’s going– who d’you think you are?! Let me down at once!”

Another slap silenced him. Lex stepped back into the cross-light that filled another, nondescript basement in yet another abandoned tenement. Rachel angled between the two from the right, a chair in her hands. She swallowed hard, set it to their left. Fear and regret infected her as she stepped back with a pair of jumper cables in her gloved hands. The cables snaked to the chair, connected to a new-age high-strength car battery there.

Andersson eyed the jumper prongs in Rachel’s hands, “You must be joking. Filthy pig!

Rachel shook her head. Lex slapped Andersson’s face again, refocused his attention on her, “The battery isn’t enough to kill you. However, if your body is electrified long enough, your nervous system will fry. Even after the current’s removed, you will continue to feel pain. Your muscles seize. Your pulse becomes erratic. You struggle to breathe, but can’t. You want to scream, but only gasp. Your Jaw clenches. Teeth grind.” Lex took a step back, “If you’re lucky, your pain receptors will blow-out before it is over. You’ll go in to shock. Only when your brain starts to shut down will the agony finally end.” Lex removed a massive, fluid-filled syringe and needle from an inside pocket of her jacket, “That is, unless someone shoots you with adrenaline.” She lifted the syringe, made sure it was a focal point between them, “Straight in your heart.”

Andersson swallowed breathlessly, “ Wh-what do you want?”

Lex’s eyes narrowed slightly, “The location and bypass measures for the Collective’s vault.”

“How d’you– No, no I can’t,” he said with a fearful shudder.

Lex sighed, crossed her arms, then nodded to Rachel. She trembled, flinched as she sparked the prongs together. Andersson protested, pled. The clamps spread wide with a forward step. She thought to hesitate– it was this or Lex killed her. If she left, the Collective killed her. It wasn’t a choice, just a different form of torture. At least Ville’s was obvious.

Charged steel touched Andersson’s skin at his chest and hip. His mouth opened to scream, rasped instead. His body writhed, shook. The current locked his jaw. Freshly cooked skin perforated the air. Rachel fought to keep her stomach from climbing her throat. Her arms made micro-moves to keep the prongs on Andersson. He juked, spasmed, seized. She kept conscious; her treatment would be worse, at least this proved her usefulness.

“Enough.”

Rachel almost fell backward. The prongs lifted, spread apart. Andersson dangled, helpless. Errant shocks still arced over him. His jerked and twitched with whimpers. Scorch-marks of red, over-cooked skin had yet to blacken or peel.

“The vault, Ville,” Lex said calmly. “We know it is in the Alps. Its coordinates and bypass protocols and this ends.”

His jaw chattered from the electricity’s effects, “I-I c-can’t. T-they’ll k-kill me…”

Rachel winced, met Lex’s eyes. She gave a slight nod. Rachel steeled her throat against the bilious rise from her gut. Her hands re-fixed their grip on the prongs.

“N-no. No!”

Andersson’s cries turned to a sustained growl. Current rocketed through him. Blue spines emanated in waves across his skin in water from the pipe above. Jaw-muscles clenched. Enamel ground. His legs and shook until Rachel was sure she’d lose contact.

“Stop.”

Rachel was woozy. She returned to her spot beside the chair. Lex took a few steps forward, put a pair of fingers to Andersson’s neck. In one motion she uncapped the syringe, jammed into his heart, and shoved the plunger in. His body tensed with a rasping scream.

He was suddenly fully alert, “Okay, I’ll talk. I’ll talk.” He sobbed, “You’ll… n-need a p-pen.”

Andersson was true to his word. He began to talk, at length. He needed no further incentive. Evidently the adrenaline had been as bad as Lex remembered. Or perhaps the Swiss man was merely less robust. He revealed the coordinates and vault security protocols all the same. Rachel scribbled his words on a few sheets of paper, along with a remote IP address to download the vault’s specs.

“T-that’s it,” Andersson finished. “Th-that’s all there is.”

Lex nodded, “Very good, Ville.” She drew a blade from her back.

“B-but, I gave you everything you wanted!”

Lex’s eyes were cold, “Not everything.”

The blade whirled. Her arm extended. Steel plunged into his heart. His body gave a final twitch, then went limp against its binds. The blade withdrew, whirled. Blood splat across the back-wall.

Rachel stared. She’d suspected Lex would kill Andersson regardless. Between what Rachel had done herself, and what Lex assured she’d suffer if she resisted, she’d entered a sort of autonomous fugue state. She was aware of the atrocity she was committing, but somehow it was now all the more real. The papers shook with her hands. Her throat bubbled acid.

She sprinted for a distant, dark corner of the room, fell to her knees. The sound of retching heaved acid from her empty gut. Bile stung her sinuses over putrescent mold. The sickly combination fueled her dry-heaves. Rachel forced herself to come up for air, the wet basement’s stink too powerful. Her knees trembled as she rose. Lex re-sheathed her blade, collected the papers.

“I-I c-can’t do this,” Rachel stammered.

Lex’s methodical actions remained unhindered, “Are you reneging on our deal?”

Rachel swayed into a clumsy walk to approach Lex, “What deal? You mean turning me into a monster in place of killing me? Or sending me back to the Collective to have them kill me? Where’s the deal there, Alexis? Where’s my incentive?”

Lex remained collected, “I’ve told you before, my name is Lex.”

Rachel grit her teeth. Tears welled in her eyes, “You’re just going to use me until I’m not helpful anymore, then kill me anyhow. Even if you don’t, you’ll send me back to the Collective, make them do it for you. So where’s my incentive, Alexis?

Lex made a move that Rachel was sure would end her life. Instead, she found herself nose-to-nose with her, “My name is Lex. Your people made sure Alexis died in prison, falsely accused of her parents’ murder.” Rachel’s breath trembled, hot on Lex’s face. “Have you ever been in a Collective Prison for dissent?” Lex’s eyes sharpened with her tongue, “Do you know what they do to people they can’t turn into Sleepers?” Another breath trembled, mixed hot air with the basement’s cold on Lex’s face. Rachel’s eyes clenched shut in terror. “Trust me when I say, Andersson’s torture was a reprieve compared to what they did to us– to me.”

Lex straightened, increased the distance between them. Rachel’s eyes flitted open, but remained down-cast, petrified.

“Every breath you take from this moment forward is a gift from me, Rachel Dahl,” Lex said harshly. “You may not have been my captor, but your negligence allowed me to be theirs. Trust that if I wanted you dead I would not hesitate to kill you. One day, you will recognize that. With it, you will see you’re only alive because your crimes are not irredeemable. Only then can you begin to seek redemption.” Lex turned to leave, “If I were you, I would do everything to ensure I retain that opportunity.”

8.

Heist

Lex stamped a boot on a rear bench-seat of a cargo van. Her body seemed gyroscopically stable against the Alps’ rough roads. She tightened her laces while Rachel jostled absently beside her. Her eyes had been empty since they’d left Japan. Full-days of boat and car-rides had gotten them across the Asian continent and upward into central Europe, but in all that time, neither she nor Lex had said much. They merely ate, stopped occasionally to rest, resupply, or sleep.

Now the journey was almost over. After they took the vault, they would rocket back to Japan, finish what had been started. The way forward however, would be no easy task.

The Collective housed their vault in the basement of a castle once belonging to a Swiss Baron– a literal dungeon dated to the late fourteenth century. The Baron had been murdered in his sleep by Hitler’s Schutzstaffel while his other forces made their French push. The insurgency however, was thwarted by the Baron’s security forces before it could become a full-blown Casus Belli and drag the country into war. Switzerland remained neutral but the castle changed hands more times than Lex cared to count– all of them greased by dirty money.

She sank beside Rachel whom hunched over in her coat against cold that leaked in. The engine and transmission strained beneath them, urged onward by a heavy foot. Yang-Lee’s scarred face peered back from the passenger-seat, “We’re close.”

Lex readied herself at the rear-doors, “Pull off the road. We’ll walk from here.”

Minutes later Lex and her team, Rachel included, began to hike the final, long twist of road that led to the castle. They emerged on the far-side of a wide curve. Mountains loomed with an ubiquitous boldness to their right and in the background, but the spectacle ahead was curiously level given its craggy surroundings. Jagged, tooth-like ramparts and walls formed a wide barrier between a courtyard and the road with turrets every hundred meters. Gray and white patchwork prevailed through-out the weathered stone-walls. Off-center, but even with the road, stood the gate in all its impenetrable stubbornness.

A man with a rifle patrolled along the wall, security lighter here than it would be inside. The place would be filled with armed GSS Emergency Response Squads– the most elite of the elite not deployed to external security teams. They would bleed all the same.

“Kaz,” Lex said to the Japanese woman. “Go.”

She needed no further instruction. The man had yet to spot them, his mind fatigued to complacency by boredom. Kaz was behind him in a flash, her feet silent. The only sound was that of the blade as it pierced his back, cracked his sternum, and emerged from his chest. He fell face-first into the snow, dead and bleeding.

Lex and Yang-Lee were at Kaz’s side as she stooped to rifle through his pockets. Rachel and Ryo approached, their heads swiveling. The former was more paranoid than the strategic latter. Kaz rose, a key-card and radio in-hand, passed them to Lex. She stuck the radio’s ear-piece in to monitor the GSS frequency, moved them up to an arched, wooden door in the wall beside the massive gate.

The key-card touched a panel beside the door, scanned a magnetic stripe. The door eased open on a small, quiet hydraulic. Lex stepped in, nearly blind from the relative darkness.

She kept her senses honed, whispered at the others, “The rampart will lead into a tunnel. From there, we follow passages to the vault. Stay sharp.”

Rachel was silent, unsure why she was even there. Though Lex assured her she would be safe, there were more than a few doubts to her sincerity. More than likely, she would be looked to for any unforeseen developments that might arise. The only explanation Rachel could surmise verged on wafer-thin; she might know how the Collective think.

Whatever the real reason for her presence, she kept dead-center in the line of bodies that stalked the shadows beneath the ramparts. Centuries ago, this place would have been filled with the stinking bodies of medieval soldiers ready to fight and die for their home or Monarch. Now, it was desolate, empty. Its wide, arched passageways were more a curious, historical oddity than anything. Most certainly they were no longer necessary as secondary pathways to the turrets above.

They managed to find the cross-chamber that led to the vault unimpeded. The retro-fits became more obvious as the group dodged the sweeping gazes of security cameras. Old, crumbled stone transformed to restored brick work, finally morphed into steel plating that covered the walls, ceiling, and floor, reinforced them against whatever intrusion had been thought of. Evidently the Collective didn’t expect anyone walk through the side door, much less with minimal force.

They found another, circular cross-chamber with a pillar in its center. It led around to three, other pathways. From the database Andersson had given her, Lex knew two passages led to the upper-levels and the castle’s Great Hall. The third then, led to the vault and the first of its security measures. Casual footsteps echoed over the sound of voices. Lex and the others hurried to back up, out of sight.

A German voice spoke patchwork English, “Herr Steinsson hat arrived.”

“Yeh?” An Irish man’s accent asked. “What’s ‘e want?”

Der Kommandant sagt es ist about die monthly inspektion,” the German replied.

The Irish man said something as his voice curved around the inner-portion of the cross-chamber. It began to fade away, trail off down the second passage that led to the upper-levels. Lex stealthed forward, double-checked the chamber, then urged the others back into place.

The first of the security measures began just inside the passage to the vault. It wasn’t immediately obvious, and in fact, Lex wouldn’t have known were it not for Andersson’s intel. The steel-plated floor was randomly pressure-sensitive with no external indication of triggers; a singular height and shined to a high-gloss.

Thankfully, “random” actually meant patterned in a non-obvious way. Much like a musical phrase, there were obvious repetitions with only mild variation, then wild variations on either end of the phrases that led into one another. Together, they formed a mental picture in Lex’s mind that would zig-zag her across the floor-tiles.

“Step where I step and nowhere else,” Lex said quietly.

She planted her foot on the first plate, reassured herself by putting her other down and standing still for a moment. She admitted a small relief to herself, then closed her eyes to envision the layout. Left two, up one, right one, up two, left two, up two, right two. She stepped through the first series of tiles. The others followed carefully. Their eyes darted between their own feet and those of the person ahead. Each step was a vise around their hearts that tightened the further they progressed.

At the right, ninety-degree angle the hall formed, Lex stopped, stared ahead. She knew what lay unseen, between her and the massive, three foot-thick, circular-door. She also knew what would happen if she blundered forward; the castle would go on lock-down. The vault’s entry systems would be isolated, locked out of the castle’s security network until remotely reconnected. Meanwhile all GSS assets in-country would be diverted to neutralize the threat while panels in the ceiling opened, emitted hydroflouric acid and methoxyflurane gas. In other words, they’d be awake just long enough to go into shock, then die from cardiac arrest while unconscious– or else live disfigured the rest of their lives in prison.

Lex breathed, prepared. She pulled a small, cylindrical emitter from a pocket, the size of a D-Cell battery, but black with a hard shell. Its bottom-half twisted to engage it. Then, with another, careful motion, Lex followed the zig-zag of free-plates to the center of an invisible laser emitter. She stooped down, placed another cylindrical-device that misted the air every few seconds.

Rachel watched faint outlines of red-lasers bowed upward above Lex. The others engaged their countermeasures, followed after her. The mist caught the edges of the next set of emitted lasers. They bowed upward, reshaped by the static-discharger in Lex’s hand as she approached. Rachel held her discharger, heart in her throat as they made a start-stop progression while Lex placed the misting canisters. At the line’s rear, Ryo retrieved each one, then proceeded forward. As the last of the mist settled and Ryo moved from range, the lasers relaxed, ensured the group they would be forced to leave as they’d entered.

Lex’s goal was within reach now. No-one would stop her– not even the men in the security room that monitored the vault from the cameras at either side of it. With a final, calculated step, she passed from the mine-field of pressure plates and onto a wide, singular section of floor before the vault door. It spanned at least as much of the door’s sweeping gait, more even, it seemed.

The others followed, disengaged their countermeasures. Kaz and Yang-Lee split for the cameras, cut open their insulated wires to splice small, box-like devices to them that magnetically latched to the cameras’ bodies. They backed away from their respective cameras; Yang-Lee stood sentinel at the edge of the lone plate, faced the way they’d come.

Kaz returned to Lex’s side, “We’re ready.”

Lex nodded, “Ryo?”

He stepped past for a large panel beside the door. A hand-print scanner was housed in a touch screen below a retinal scanner and voice-print lock. In addition, numbered keys said a code was necessary to breach the state of the art security. Ryo had none of those things. Instead, he produced slam-bore from his pack, punched through the panel’s half-dozen screws, then pried it from the wall. The panel came loose, caught by Kaz’s hands. It jostled as he fished through the wires, spliced them to a bundle of cable connected to a hand-held tablet computer.

A full minute later hydraulics hissed over a series of loud clicks. Giant, steel bolts grated metal on metal as they slid back, in. The group stepped aside for the vault door to ease open, reveal its innards and their bounty. They stood in awe for a moment– even Rachel’s eyes gleamed dully at the hundreds of tons of gold and platinum bullion. A smug, knowing smile crept across Lex’s face.

This was the bulk of the world’s economy. It made Fort Knox look like chump-change. Despite the comparatively small vault, the bullion here was two and three times as valuable as Knox in its heyday. What was more, it was the Collective’s only physical measure of wealth. Long before the Sleep paper money had become useless, but even digital currency required physical assets to remain fiscally solvent, its value relative to what backed it. With a well-placed explosive, Lex planned to destroy– or at least nullify– the Collective’s stock-piled wealth.

“Take only what you can without being weighed down,” Lex said as she entered the vault. “Don’t get greedy.”

They entered the marble-floored vault. Lock-boxes formed mausoleum-like walls around the massive carts of gold and platinum. Kaz and Yang-Lee went to work to hack more cameras in the room’s corners then joined in ransacking the carts. They filled canvas packs with as much metal as they could carry.

Lex took a wide path around the vault, set small, thermos-like devices in its corners: they could never destroy the vault, or indeed even the metal in it. What they could do was turn the room into a super-powerful magnet so strong it– and everything inside it– would deform. The devices would create a singularity of unrivaled proportions by building to critical mass. The vault would contract, re-fuse until no larger than an SUV. The molten ball formed wouldn’t cool for weeks, months even. The repository would be eradicated in one, fell-swoop, its value gone.

The group procured their metal, then readied to make the trek back. The vault door swung shut as the super-magnets’ timers engaged. In a little less than five minutes, they would activate, begin to build up their polar charges, and the chaos would begin. Lex moved quickly back across the safe plates, through the lasers, and into the central passageway.

The timer was already down four-minutes when they reached the pillared cross-chamber. Lex shoved her bag of bullion into Rachel’s hands, “Go with them, I’ll meet you in Tokyo.”

Rachel was suddenly irate, “What? Are you crazy? Where are you going?”

“Steinsson is here,” Lex replied with a knowing look to the others. “Viktor Steinsson is a member of the Collective. He can not be allowed to live.”

“Forty-five seconds,” Kaz said with a look to her watch.

Rachel argued over her, “You’re crazy, Lex, you can’t–”

“Get out!” Lex ordered with a caustic hush.

“Come on,” Ryo said, pulling Rachel along.

Rachel watched Lex as the seconds ticked down. She suddenly drew her blades, disappeared around the pillar. Rachel swallowed acid; as much as she’d been against Lex, she was the closest thing left to a friend. Between what the Collective would do, and her weariness at the others like Lex, she didn’t want to be without even the minor rapport they’d built.

Rachel’s safety was admittedly nearer in Lex’s mind than her own as she sprinted through the maze of main-passageways that curved around, back, straightened out, and widened again. Her blades gleamed while her feet beat a gallop along plated floors toward a pair of men. They turned in time to be cut down, cast aside from the passage’s center. Lex followed through without a missed beat. Her blades dripped trails along the zig-zag of stairs that led up to the Great Hall.

She exploded onto the marble floors just as alarms screamed through the castle. The magneto-bomb had been detected. In moments it would reach critical mass, destroy the world’s last repository of hard currency. Nothing could stop that now, but Lex wouldn’t have let it anyhow.

Orders were shouted all around the Hall, echoed through its expanse over boots that marched down toward the vault. Lex saw the castle’s blue-prints in her mind, knew Steinsson would be in the security room just off the right side of the hall. Her feet danced poly-rhythms near a door over a melody of steel cutting skin. She severed the jugulars of a pair of guards there. More began to appear, their attention directed elsewhere form the chaos downstairs.

She shoved her way through a heavy, wooden door. The narrow hall beyond was long, filled with doorways of various non-importance. Her goal lay dead ahead, behind an open doorway with bodies that moved every which way around chromed-out tech.

She made the door in a few steps, bolted inside with a flurry of movement. She whirled round, blades cutting. The commotion inside barely registered the deaths of three security techs. Steinsson turned, the glaring eyes accented the white of his thinning hair. His recessed hair-line made jagged points of already-angled features.

Lex’s blades thrust and sliced, incised and slit their way across the room. Her body followed, the entities inseparable in their blurred motions. Before Viktor could react, Lex’s brought the katanas’ hilts together in a deep lunge. The blades sank into him, pierced clean-through with a splatter of blood that painted an abstract on the wall and tech behind him. The blades slid out in time to spin, catch two GSS guards on either side beneath their helmets.

Blood spilled from freshly cut throats as she came about, blades in their downward-point. Three GSS officers stood across the room with raised rifles. They shouted commands in various languages over the wail of klaxons. She refused to flinch. A man fingered his trigger.

A burst of fire riddled his body from the doorway. A second cut down the man beside him. The third turned as Lex’s right-hand blade sailed through the air, into his chest at an angle. A third burst cut him down simultaneously. He fell, dead. The smoke of the gunfire cleared in time for Lex to catch Rachel in the doorway.

For a moment both women were too shocked to move. Lex shook it off first, sprinted forward, retrieved her blade then made for the door. She drug Rachel with by the shoulder until she regained her wits.

“I wasn’t going to come back for you,” Rachel panted, in-step with Lex.

“Not now,” Lex said as they entered the Great Hall for the castle’s main door.

Sunlight beckoned them forward from the open doors, kissed them with its frosty presence. The courtyard was empty. Distant metal grated, ground as something behind them exploded. Neither woman paused to look back. Instead, they rushed for a door in the wall they’d entered through, took the rampart’s interior in a few steps, then shoved their way back into the day-light.

Their chests heaved, feet slipped on icy snow, caught traction on the road. Limbs pumped with aching muscles to launch them down the mountain, around the winding corner toward the awaiting van. Kaz had already angled it around, the back-doors open and the engine running.

Lex shoved Rachel inside as she climbed in, “Go! Go!”

The van started into a gallop, assisted by the road’s steep grade. The rear-doors slammed shut as Lex and Rachel pushed themselves up from the floor, fought opposing gravity to re-take their seats over a wheel.

Rachel swallowed hard with a look to Lex beside her, “We… actually made it.”

Lex gave a long sigh to recompose herself, “Yeah. We did.” She glanced at Ryo across from her, “The metal?”

He looked sideways at the pile of bags that clanked and clanged from the road’s twists and turns. Lex threw her head back, relieved, and leaned against the van’s wall. Her head rolled along her neck to meet Rachel’s eyes.

“Thank you.”

Rachel winced, grimaced. Then, with a small nod she replied, “You’re welcome.”

9.

Rude Awakening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10.

Retribution

Rachel had been right, the streets were total chaos. The diamond-formation the group took up as they walked was the only thing approaching order in all of Tokyo. Everywhere people rampaged back and forth, lingered on street corners, in building alcoves, each of them groggy, confused. Most were emaciated, death-camp refugees who’d only just escaped. It seemed too, every one bore at least some symptom of mania from addiction. They craved the ‘net like a junkie craved a fix, but there wasn’t a scrap of electro-dope to be found in all of Tokyo anymore.

The first armored transports they found were empty. Evidently the GSS had deployed before the pulse took out the city’s systems. Whomever had been en-route was no doubt now foot-bound, likely on the way to whatever rendezvous they’d been given. If Lex knew anything about the Collective’s two, remaining members, she knew the American head of GSS would be in-country to keep order.

James Hobbs’ cruelty was unmatched, by the Collective or otherwise. He’d been established the prisons and protocols for dealing with those that refused to sleep. He’d also ensured anyone whom survived those protocols lost a piece of themselves. More importantly, he personally saw to the interrogation and brutalization of Alexis Thorne.

He’d given her more than a few injuries himself. His own, bare hands, had intimidated and threatened her with every form of violence, and made good on some. Hobbs was a sadistic bastard Lex would ensure paid for his cruelties.

Finding him wasn’t nearly as hard as Lex thought it would be. Arrogance and over-confidence could be added to the list of the scumbag’s traits. He and his men had broadcast their location with gun-fire and explosions from a park-square near the city’s center. Lex and the others arrived at its perimeter through the herds that stampeded away like rats from a tidal-wave. What vehicles still worked formed a full barricade around the large square.

Marble statues gleamed like porcelain under flood-lights, powered by generators inside. The white-marble matched concrete walkways. Equally tinted, extra-wide planters were arranged around the flat square beside benches. Japanese Maples, Cherry and Plum Blossoms loomed beautifully over colorful hydrangeas, chrysanthemums, and morning glories. The palette of color on white was warmth against the black steel of vehicles and armed soldiers assembled or patrolling inside.

Lex had gathered her people for this. She’d sent runners to round everyone up. The ever-awakened made their way through the crowd on all sides of the square, marching as Lex was, Rachel beside her. In a moment, Lex and the others would strike with the fury of oppressed millions.

The crowd did its best to unwittingly thwart their advance, but each side reported through ear-comms. The city seemed to take a breath. Then, with the scream of APC guns, exhaled to fan flames of chaos and revolution.

The barricade of vehicles had turned on its owners. Twenty-five millimeter cannons diverted the tides of chaos from the crowd outside to the one inside. Generators exploded. Fuel lines spilled. Columns of fire sprayed in all directions. Ammunition caches were immolated. Stray bullets fired randomly, caused bodies to fall with those from the vehicles’ fire.

The square became a smoke-filled slaughter-house. The only light left was that of the vehicles’ muzzle flashes and growing flames. Men and women flashed through it. They tossed aside arms, fled, died, or huddled in terror. The APC’s guns beat a constant war-rhythm. Dying screams syncopated with splattering blood. The mayhem turned the newly-awakened into gawking statues.

All at once the guns went quiet. No-one on either side moved. All were still. Only a few cries from the dying broke the silence. They settled, soothed or dead, into nothingness. The last of the guns’ smoke rolled across the square, and a silhouette appeared. Blades pointed downward at its sides. A leather coat swirled behind it. Confident steps propelled it forward.

In the square’s center, a man rose from behind a planter, pistol in hand. The aged, graying features of the American hardened. His sweat-lined, dirt-covered face pulled taught defiantly. He emerged, outgunned and outnumbered, but with his weapon trained on the figure. A lean to his posture said he was ready to duck back if need be, but he sensed Lex’s presence was more a challenge than anything. She continued forward. Hobbs shouted throw down her weapons, warned of impending fire.

Rachel watched from atop an APC beside Ryo and Kaz. Another shout. Then, a three-count. A shot rang out. Both sides saw the silhouette hit. Blood sprayed shadows. Lex didn’t flinch. Ryo readied to radio for fire.

Rachel stopped him. “No,” she said, her voice pained, airy. “She has to do this herself.”

Hobbs yelled something Lex ignored. To either side she was merely a faceless warrior, a silhouette, as symbolic as anyone could hope for. No bullet could stop her now.

Another shout. A second bullet sprayed blood near Lex’s hip. She took the hit, fueled by adrenaline, warmed by leaking blood and vengeance. She marched in stance, blades hungry for their bounty. Awakened and soldier alike watched, afraid to breathe.

A grunt and a growl. Five more rounds littered Lex’s torso. Anyone else would have been dead. She should have been, but her body was no longer her own. It was fueled by revenge, justice for countless lost and aimless souls. An almost a collective gasp sounded when Hobbs emptied his magazine into Lex.

She kept walking. He was terrified.

In thirty years of special forces work, running GSS and its prison camps, and breaking its prisoners, he’d never once seen someone so wholly refuse to die. Her face emerged from smoke, stained orange and red from the fires at her sides. Her leather coat shined wet with blood while her clothing clung to her body, obvious even at-range. Fifteen holes leaked the last of her life from her, poor kill-shots each of them.

Hobbs cast the gun away, Lex at arm’s-length. He threw a punch. It was caught in her left arm. Her right sword’s hilt slammed his face. She twisted his arm until it crunched, dislocated. The right blade stab his left thigh, forced him to a half-kneel. His left hand grasped her left sword, managed to clench it. In a single move, the swords plunged through opposing flesh.

Lex didn’t budge. Hobbs’ eyes went wide. Blood began dribbled down his chin. With one, final rip, Lex tore the sword from her own abdomen. It thrust downward beside the other in Hobbs’ chest. His eyes rolled back. He slipped backward, dead.

Rachel bolted. Lex fell to her knees, slumped sideways, caught before she hit the ground.

“Lex!?” Rachel said, her composure cracking. She felt Lex’s blood coat her lower-half, “Lex? C’mon. No! No!”

A glimmer beside Rachel’s face twinkled in Lex’s vision, “Stars over Tokyo…” Lex met Rachel’s eyes. The last of the color drained from her face, “F-finish it.”

Ryo and the others approached slowly. Lex’s eyes shut with a final exhale. Rachel couldn’t help but nod, caress her hair while her eyes leaked tears. Her chest fluttered with sharp breaths.

She eased from beneath Lex, “I will, Lex. I p-promise.”

She laid Lex flat. The city eased into motion again. They closed-in somberly, soldier and awakened alike, to see the woman who’d defied death– even if for an instant. Rachel choked down tears, oblivious to the encroaching presence. She rose to her feet, legs strong as she stepped to Hobbs’ dead body.

With a resounding rip, she tore Lex’s swords from the body, “There is one member of the Collective left alive. We finish this– for Lex.”

***

It was a little over a month later. The awakened had only just begun to adjust to the world. Tokyo was already largely rebuilt from the chaos but the global economy was still in shambles. Most places were back to the barter system. Others were in full-blown civil war. A few however, like Monte Carlo were still civilized. There, most everything came on credit from fear or respect. It was only logical then, that the last member of the Collective had sought refuge in its coastal embrace.

He was a man older than time itself nowadays; Wei Zhou, former-chemist and researcher turned entrepreneur and billionaire mogul. He’d stumbled onto a formula to slow the aging process. He was the eldest, highest ranking member of the Collective. It had been his brain-child decades ago, before it could even be enacted. The man was cunningly clever, difficult as wet eel to pin down, and just as snake-like. The local mafioso protected him like their own, but even they feared the incise of dual blades.

Zhou sipped from a wine glass on a balcony that overlooked the Mediterranean sea. He wore a white sport-coat and slacks that blew in a mild wind above his tucked-in, black shirt. Between his sunglasses, panama hat, and the Gardenia in his lapel, he exuded all the intimidation and class of mafia Don himself.

He swirled the Cabarnet Sovignon in his glass, looked through it to check its color and consistency. The whole of the world around him was reflected in a deformed caricature, including a shadow.

He spoke french, “I said I was not to be disturbed.”

A hand whirled him around. His face met Rachel’s. The shock bucked the glass away. It shattered red wine across the balcony’s paver-stones.

She grit her teeth, “Alexis Thorne sends her regards.”

Lex’s blades pierced Zhou’s chest together. He fell to his knees, hat blown to the wind. He stared up, his white suit stained red. Rachel pulled the blades out. Zhou fell, dead. Rachel’s teeth ground with satisfaction. Lex’s blades whirled to fling blood away.

She turned to march away, comm active as she re-sheathed the blades, “It’s done.”

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