2292: The World Is Ours

Posted: March 1, 2014 by Kelly in stories, the world

Gershan is silent as a ghost when he enters the bedroom. It’s nearing 6am and behind the sheer curtains, the sky is lighting up with the promise of dawn, and he’s completely fucking exhausted, but he can’t afford to make a sound. Irina’s sleeping, and he doesn’t want to wake her up. Irina hardly ever sleeps. Even when she does, she is a light sleeper. She wakes up from the smallest things and even though she hides it like a champ, he knows it’s always with a racing heart and the taste of fear in her mouth.

Solchov has been dead for two months, but his influence can still be felt in everything Irina does, everything she says. There’s such a rift between what she thinks and what she finally says; he wouldn’t even have known it was there if he hadn’t known her for so long. It’s in the way she moves; that cautious way of walking and turning when she hears something behind her. In the angry red scars on her face and her shoulder. She refuses to pay for reconstructive surgery, even though the doctors offered and money is not the issue. He never asked her why; it’s not his business. She’s beautiful to him either way. The reminders though; they will stay forever. It’s not just the scars. Sometimes he watches her at work and it’s almost as if he can hear Alek Solchov issuing the orders in her voice. He never says anything about it. She probably knows.

He thoughtlessly watches her sleep as he braids his shower-wet hair out of his face. He needed that shower badly; Irina hates the sight of bloodied hands. Despite the fact that she orders him on these assignments and she knows damn well what he does, she can’t bear to watch him with other people’s blood on his skin. Gershan’s fine with it either way. A shower is a good occasion to let go of it and move on. And now he’s all warm and relaxed when getting into bed. It’s a win-win situation, really.

She’s beautiful when she sleeps. She lies on her side, her hands close to her face, fingers half-curled, face partly obscured by dark hair. The half-twilight of early dawn is forgiving to her scars. Gershan takes one more second to appreciate the view and then slips next to her between the covers, marveling over how easy it is now to just be with her. Lying in bed with her is still a precious commodity though, with her erratic sleep schedules. The biggest difference is that it’s not going to get them killed anymore. He’ll miss the excitement of it, but the peace that comes with just sleeping next to her without the fear of discovery is worth something as well.

He gently tries to tug some of the blankets in his direction, because she’s hogging them – and within one second and the next she’s awake and her green eyes are wide open, staring at them.

“It’s just me,” he whispers. “Go back to sleep, Irina.”

Her breath is gaspy, as if she’s just had a shock. “I dreamed…” she says, half-unseeing, half-asleep still.

“I know,” he says. “Do you want me to hold you?”

She shakes her head and hugs herself with a somewhat nauseated expression on her face. She takes a deep, shuddering sigh, but doesn’t speak. Just closes her eyes for a moment.

“I know, it’s always the worst when you wake up,” he reassures her, lying on his side and facing her. He’s close enough to share in her body heat, close enough to be there for her. “Take a moment. Just breathe.”

“How do you know?” she asks, her voice strangely unguarded. She’s still hugging herself, but she doesn’t seem to be shaking anymore.

He smiles at her in the twilight and shrugs. He won’t tell her about his father. About the violence, about the alcohol, about the spite, and how his father used to drag him out of his bed by the hair and drunkenly shout: “Fight me, you useless fuck! That’s what you’re good at, right?” and would just keep hitting them until Gershan would block and try to counter. Until one day he hit the old man with the money shot. That was when he was /just/ awake as well. “Everyone is most vulnerable when they just wake up. It’s like I told you, remember? Take a moment to gather your bearings before you face the world. That’s for the best.”

“Yeah,” she breathes, reaching out to him. She takes his hand in hers and smiles that broken smile at him. “You know what the worst thing is?”

He squeezes her hand softly and waits.

“The worst thing is that I haven’t killed him. I could have done it a thousand times and I didn’t. He slept here right next to me. I could have slit his throat, smothered him, poisoned him. Anything. Why didn’t I?”

/Yeah, why didn’t you?/ He’s offered her to take care of Solchov dozens of times. She’d always refused. “You said it wasn’t time.”

“I thought he wouldn’t hurt me. He said he loved me.” Her voice is full of sickness now. “I was so stupid. I keep walking into these things; I keep trusting in the wrong things. The wrong people. It always ends up in shit. No more.”

“I could dig him up and kill his corpse for you again, if you want,” he says with a slight smile.

She laughs softly, that bedroom laugh that she only saves for him. “What, Solchov? How would that work?”

“Stabbing, I suppose,” he says thoughtfully. “It’d be messy, but I’d do it for you. Or I could hold him, so you could stab him.”

She chuckles and then turns around, spooning up against him. She’s warm against his skin as he wraps his arms around her. “Tempting. I don’t think it would work, though.”

“I know,” he says, burying his face in her hair. It tickles. “I wish I would have had the time to let you watch him die. I wish you could have done it. It would have been sweet, to see you kill him.”

“Not sweet. Cathartic,” she says. “Now all I have is his asshole friends to dispose of. They’re poor substitutes.”

“Not really,” Gershan answers, laying his cheek on her hair and thinking back to earlier this evening. “Dobromir Bilius had a boy with him. It wasn’t his son. Thirteen, fourteen maybe. Boy told me ‘thank you’ when he fled. Asked me to make it hurt.”

“Did you?”


“Make it hurt?”

He smiles in the twilight. “Yeah, I did.”

They stay silent for a long time. He relaxes in their embrace and is on the cusp of nodding off when Irina asks: “Gershan?”


“Next time…” Her voice sounds resolute. The voice she uses for her clients. The voice of the young woman who has usurped Alek Solchov’s financial empire and who is well on the way to becoming the richest and most powerful person in the Black City. “Next time I want to watch.”

“Okay,” he says simply, hugging her tightly. As if he could ever refuse her anything.

2309: Momentary Bliss

Posted: March 1, 2014 by Kelly in stories, the world

The razor clatters on the floor, bouncing off the sink on the way down. It leaves a smudge of blood on the white porcelain and splatters shaving cream on the tiles below. “Well fuck.” Ruiz mutters, staring down at his hand. The flow of blood is already slowing. It’s barely a cut, certainly nothing he would have flinched at before. He looks up at his face in the mirror and sees a thin rivulet of blood trickle down from his cheekbone, where he managed to cut himself shaving.

“Fuck this shit.” He grunts at his reflection and slams his fist into his reflection. The image ripples, but the screen doesn’t shatter. “New school bullshit.” He mutters, flexing his hand. His knuckles throb. He may have broken his hand again. Typical. He’s the only broken thing here.

The door opens behind him, revealing a pretty redheaded nurse. She’s dressed in nothing but her skin. Ruiz glances at her reflection and shakes the tension and ache out of his hand. “Everything ok?” Jillian asks, looking from his face to his hand to the razor on the floor. A look of sympathy crosses her face, and not for the first time since his arrival in the clinic he wishes he could wipe it away, smash it from every face he sees.

“Cut myself shaving.” He mutters, turning around to look at her. She walks towards him, unafraid. He hates it. Loves it. She bends down, picks up the razor from the ground and crowds into his personal space. Her fingers trace of the cut on his cheek. She tuts, and pushes his chin up, making him tilt his head back.

“Let me help with that.” She whispers, sliding the razor over his still lathered face. He wants to tell her he’s not a fucking invalid, but that would be a lie. He’s a cripple. Can’t even shave himself. Can’t even catch a razor when he drops it. He opens his mouth to comment on it, but Jillian presses a finger to his lips.

“It’ll come back.,” She tells him. “Just give it more time.”

“I’ve given it months,” he grouses, wrapping his hands around Jillians waist and pulling her tight against him.

“And look at how far you’ve come already. You’ll be fit as a fiddle in no time, and your body will remember what it’s good at.”

He smirks and lifts her up and sets her down on the towel closet, stepping in between her legs which wrap around him instantly. “I remember a few things it’s good at,” He jests, ignoring the way his arms tremble with the exertion of lifting her up. He’s a wreck, but he’s willing to forget about it for a while if she is.


Sweat drips down his back as he pulls himself up for the fifteenth time. His arms feel like they’re burning, but he’s not stopping. Last time he did this they had been forced to carry him out after he passed out, exhausted. It’ll come back, they had said. They never said when, or how, ir if he’s ever going to feel like himself again instead of like an old man.

“You are an old man.” Catherine had said. She had meant well, of course. Older than him by at least two decades, she had saved up for the procedure her whole life. She was getting a cure for M.S. Ruiz was being reconstructed after someone killed him. They have absolutely nothing in common, but with Walter gone she had been one of the few people left with the guts to talk to him. So he lets her talk and pretends he doesn’t want to break every single bone in her body.

“Old man my ass.” he grunts, pulling himself up again. He manages three more pull-ups before his fingers slip on the bar and he drops to the floor in a heap, pain shooting through his shoulders and back. Some days he swears he can feel exactly where the iron spike nicked his spine, rendering him crippled. The muscles, cartilage and nerves had all been regrown and replaced. Even the scars were hardly visible, but Ruiz can still feel it and remember the exact way Chang killed him.

“I will piss on your corpse.” He grunts out as he pulls himself upright.

“That’s not very nice,” the disembodied voice of Walter echoes through the training center. His face appears on the wall that Ruiz is using to pull himself upright.

“Fuck, you’re ugly up close,” Ruiz tells him, taking a step back to get a good look at Walter. He’s not looking too shabby. His eyes have a spark of life in them that Ruiz hadn’t seen while he was still in recovery.

“You’re no looker yourself, assface,” Walter says, grinning at him. “But it’s good to see you’re up, sorta.”

“Fuck you, runt. I’m beautiful.” He snarls at the camera, giving Walter a view of his prettiest angle. “Jillian patch you through?”

“You mean the ginger nurse? Yeah, she said you wouldn’t mind. I’m not interrupting anything, right?”

Ruiz shakes his head, flinching at the twinge of pain in his shoulders. “Nah… I’m done her for the day. Might as well save myself the humiliation of passing out and waking up in a puddle of my own drool again. What do you need, Walter?”

“What, a bro can’t call his bro to see how he’s doing these days?” Walter asks, his mouth curved in a half-smirk.

“Small talk isn’t your style, Lane.”

Walter shrugs, looking terribly pleased with himself. Fucking insane is how Ruiz would describe it, if he’d seen that look in the arena. “I’ve got some news, figured you should hear it from me and not from the media.” He pauses for effect. Ruiz hates pauses for effect.

“You’ve decided to finally embrace your true nature and will continue your life as Vanessa Humpalot, dragqueen extraordinaire?” Ruiz guesses. It earns him an amused snort from Walter. “Alright, I give up, spill the beans already.”

“I’ll be visiting your old stomping grounds soon,” Walter says, his eyes taking on the dangerous glint of madness that Ruiz had seen there once or twice before, usually when they were talking about the Corporation.

“What, Salvador?” He has to ask, even though he has a sneaking suspicion that’s not what Walter means.

“Southern League,” the other man confirms. “They’re giving me a free pass straight to the arena, none of that Fortress bullshit this time around. Apparently they think they owe me something.”

“Well fuck, that is the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever heard. Congrats man.” He grins at Walter, “I heartily approve. Suicide by League, no one’s ever done that before. That is a novel fucking concept, bro.”

“Fuck you, I’m not suiciding. I just want to fuck shit up,” Walter frowns at him.

“And that I can relate to, but do you really think you’re going to be in fighting shape in seven months?” Ruiz can’t hide another wince when he straightens his shoulders. His arms really do feel like they’re on fire. A brief look of sympathy crosses Walter’s face, and Ruiz wants to stomp on it until it’s an unrecognisable bloody mess.

“I’ll be alright. My knee is better than it’s ever been, even before it was shot to shit. I’m working with Saxa to get fit. Luckily my upper body was fine, so I’m not dealing with loss of muscle memory there. The rest is easier to pick up.”

“Saxa, that chick who shot you in the Fortress? That Saxa? Man, you’ve got balls. I hope she doesn’t shoot you before the fun begins this time.”

“Well, there won’t be anyone fucking with her guns this time around…”

“Color me relieved, bro. I’m surprised they let you in though, your feelings about the League are well documented and creative.”

Walter smirks again, “Ah, but you forget, I have something they want.” Another fucking pause for effect. Ruiz glares at Walter, who takes the hint. “A good story. Former Fortress Victim goes back for seconds. Grief Stricken Underdog tries to go the way of the dodo. Think of the headlines, man. You know they are…”

“Cunts,” Ruiz mutters. “Not a bad idea though. Huh. Maybe I should give Young a call, see if he can set me up with the Southern League as well. Should be fun, right?”

Walter laughs at that. “In your current state? Talk about shit ideas.”

“I’ve got seven months, runt.” Ruiz growls.

“In seven months time you’ll still be recovering. I don’t think they’ll let you take a walker into the arena.”

“Fuck you, asshole. I’ll be dancing fucking circles around you seven months from now.”

“Not likely, mate.” Walter smiles sympathetically again, and for one bright, vivid moment Ruiz imagines choking the life out of him. “By all means, sign up, but you’re making it a cakewalk for anyone competing with you.”

“We’ll see about that. If you think I’m going to let some whiny runt take my title from me you’ve got another thing coming.”

“As if you’ve ever given a shit about the title,” Walter smirks. “Look, I get where you’ve coming from, but just give it more time. One year from now you’re going to be at your full strength and back to kicking ass and taking names and spinal cords. You’ll see.”

“I’ll see you in seven months, Lane.” Ruiz growls, “Keep me up to date in the meantime, alright? This place is boring as fuck and I could do with the entertainment.”

“I thought Jillian was keeping you entertained?”

“Fuck off, you know what I mean. Keep me up to date, Lane, or I will kick your pale ass into next week.”

“Bring it on, old man. I’m pretty sure I can take you.”


“It’s not going to happen.” Young’s voice is kind, cool and sympathetic and he’s telling Ruiz exactly what he doesn’t want to hear.

“Come on, it’ll be great. Thing of the headlines. Think of the ratings!” Ruiz tries for the fourth time. Young is a slut for ratings, but he just shakes his head.

“I’m thinking of the headlines alright, and you know what they tell me? Miraculously healed survivor of a world league that shouldn’t have been survivable is added back to the fortress roster. Do you have any idea what that’s going to look like?” He shakes his head. “We’ve worked our asses of for years to keep the league above board, above suspicion and free of corruption. Bringing you in now would open the floodgates for lawsuits and blackmail attempts, at the very least.”

“Come on, man… Surely you can work around that.”

Young shakes his head again. “I’m sorry, Ruiz. You know I’m a fan, but it’s just not the right moment for it. Just… give it some more time, alright? Heal up completely, get back to fighting shape, and then we’ll see about getting you back into the league next year. Or, here’s a thought, maybe you’ll be enjoying your retirement by that time. You’ve got nothing left to prove, why would you risk your new self for glory that’s already yours?”

“It’s not about the glory, fuckface.” Ruiz grunts. “It’s about feeling alive, alright? I fucking died out there when Chang killed me, and ever since I woke up in the fucking hospital people keep telling me I’m alive, I survived, but I don’t fucking feel it.” He hates the way his hands tremble around his glass when he says it. “I breathe and eat and talk and I fuck and I don’t feel anything! And I need you to just give me a fucking chance to find my way back…”

“I’m sorry.” Young repeats, and he looks it. “I can’t help you right now, Ruiz. Please just give it some time. You will be alright.”

Ruiz cuts the connection off and throws his glass against the wall where it splinters into a hundred pieces, amber liquid splattering the wall and the floor below. “Fuck him.” Ruiz spits out. “Fuck everything!” He punches the viewscreen. It cracks along the center, ruining the supposedly soothing nature display. Ruiz flexes his hand. His knuckles barely hurt.


The sun is warm on his face when he finally walks out of the clinic. It’s been months since he first arrived, but he’s finally recovered enough to continue his revalidation at home in Cidade. “Out of fucking purgatory…” he mutters, carefully making his way down the stairs. Jillian tells him his body is fully healed. She tells him his recovery is phenomenal, beyond anything they’ve ever seen with someone his age.

“My age,” He scoffs. “Didn’t matter much last night.” He mutters to himself as he makes his way down the stairs towards the stationary pods. The night before he’d fucked her against the wall. One last ride before his sentence was up. He doubts he’ll see her again. He doubts he’ll want to. The ache in his calves and lower back is almost pleasant now, reminding him of recent exercise instead of old injuries. It’s a relief after months and months of torture, trying to relearn how his body works.

“They’re letting you out?” An obnoxious voice reaches him. Tim Carpenter, also known as the cunt that had dared to call the Arena stale, the league repetitive. “Going to enjoy your retirement?” Carpenter continues, oblivious to the way Ruiz is ignoring his existence. “I’ve gotta say, buddy, I’m a little envious. I bet you never have to work another day in your life, with that you’ve earned in the Arena’s.”

“You mean those stale, boring things that nobody watches anymore?” Ruiz turns to look at him. Carpenter is standing upright, looking pale but healthy in the morning light. He vaguely remembers something about Carpenter being discharged this week as well.

“Hey, no offense buddy, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, right? You had a great run though, so you should be proud.”

“Proud? of being gutted by someone who didn’t even win the fucking match?” He growls at Carpenter. “Have a free piece of advice, fuckface… if you don’t know what you’re talking about then shut the fuck up,” He turns away from the other man, taking another careful step down the stairs. Jillian had told him it would take him a while to regain his balance completely, but it would come back eventually. He just needs to give it time.

“What the fuck, Ruiz. That’s completely uncalled for. I don’t know what your problem is, man. I’m only trying to…”

Ruiz doesn’t realize that he’s punching Carpenter in the face until he feels a satisfying sting of pain bloom up in his knuckles. Carpenter drops down on the stairs with a cry, clutching at his broken cheekbone. Ruiz flexes his hand. It had been a good punch. Solid, meant to take a man down. He grins and stares down at Carpenter. “Stale, huh?”

It isn’t until after he’s kicked Carpenter down the stairs and busted his skull on the side door of one of the pods that Ruiz realizes he hasn’t felt this alive since before he died. The muscles in his arms and legs are burning, but they remember how violence is done. Ruiz remembers.

“Retirement, my ass.” He says to himself, whistling as he makes his way back to Cidade.

All these moments will be lost in time

Posted: February 24, 2014 by Kelly in stories, the world

2292 – Before it all began

It was almost the end of the year, over a decade since the end of the war. All around him people were gearing up for the most wonderful time of the year. In the States the streets were lit up with fairy lights and good news all around. People kept their smiling faces on and the only news was good news. No one wanted to hear about the ongoing rebellions in other parts of the world. People just wanted to have their fancy Christmas dinners.

He wondered sometimes, if she’d experienced anything like it before he found her. Certainly not that year. That year she had been twelve years old in body, decades older in spirit, and she hadn’t known him yet. Then again, he hadn’t really known himself yet either. He looked at his reflection in one of the store windows, and past the holiday splendor and abundance he saw his own reflection. His eyes looked about a million years old to him. He grinned at himself, trying to show a little outward cheer at least.

“Yo, buddy!” Hugh’s voice startled him out of his reverie. “Yo, Stender!” he called out again, as if the sound of his name would get his attention sooner. After being called ‘Buddy’ by the other man for over five years, it barely made a difference.

“What?” he asked, turning to look at the other man. Hugh looked horribly out of place this far north. He looked like he belonged on a sunny beach somewhere, drinking tequila with a pretty girl on his knee no matter what the season was. Hugh grinned at him and shrugged.

“You looked a little zoned out right there, my man. Thinkin’ about our new venture?” He looked so hopeful Stender couldn’t bring himself to tell him otherwise.

“I’m just not sure what’s in it for us, man.” he said instead, shrugging casually. Hugh looked about ready to launch into another speech about influence and profit and reputation. Stender held his hand up to cut him off. “Let me rephrase that. I know exactly what we can gain from retrieving the data-case. What I don’t see is why we personally need to be there to ensure that it happens.”

He turned back to the window display. Inside a kid was yelling at his mom. “Oh what a wonderful time…” he muttered, before glancing back at Hugh. “I’ve seen enough battle, man. I don’t see what the benefit is of dragging my ass to Rotterdam, in the middle of the fucking rebellion I might add, just because it’ll look good on the news if people see my face there, instead of the face of some no-name mercenary.”

Hugh sauntered over to him and grabbed him by the chin, turning his face to the window. “That’s ‘cause you don’t know the value of this face, buddy. You see just some shmuck trying to get his corporation on the path of world domination. These people on the other side of the glass? They’re going to see ‘mister hand’s on’. They’re going to see the guy that doesn’t send other people to clean up his own mess. They’re going to see someone who’s willing to invest in the future, no matter what the danger.”

He let go of Stender’s face. “Also, sending a full SAR-squad into Rotterdam at this point might cause a political shitstorm, what with Zaheer denying all involvement in the uprising. People know you have assets there. Going there in person to retrieve them just shows people that you have balls of steels and you don’t give a shit about a so-called hostile environment. Just think about it, Senator McDowell is going to look like a fucking pussy compared to you ‘cause he’s sitting on his hands while state-assets are left to rot, and you’re going to look like a hero because you went to retrieve ‘em.”

“I went to retrieve my own damn data-case that should’ve gotten lifted with the evacuation.” Stender corrected him.

Hugh chuckled. “Details, good buddy. You walk in there with your own squad, you retrieve the data-case, you walk out with your own assets and state-assets, and McDowell is going to have to do some serious ass-kissing to stay on your good side after you’ve solved his problem for him. Ass-kissing in the form of those rights he refused to sell to you earlier.”

“Which he still won’t give me if there’s any way he can deny that it’s my corporation that saved the day.” Stender turned his back on the cheerful store-windows, suddenly sickened by the sight. “Fuck. Fuck that greedy sack of shit.” He looked at Hugh, grinning. “Do you ever get the feeling this would all be so much easier if I just went into politics? You know, if I just got over myself, and ran for congress or something? ‘cause fuck these guys, I could be president within a decade.”

Hugh stared at him for a second before bursting into laughter. “Politics…” he wheezed after what felt like an eternity. “Oh buddy, you in politics… that would be terrible. You’d blow the world up in a heartbeat because you got sick of all the bullshit. Nah, mate, trust me on this one. There’s not enough power to be had in politics to ever satisfy your hunger for it. Too many committees, too much scrutiny. You couldn’t even take a piss without someone asking about it.”

Stender blinked at him for a moment. “I’m not in this for power, Hugh.” he muttered after a minute of listening to Hugh rant about restrictions and legal obligations. Hugh stopped mid-sentence, looking at the other man with something close to pity in his eyes. Stender felt his heart clench for a moment.

“I know, buddy.” Hugh said, leaning against the wall next to Stender. “You’re in this for control. And I get that, but I hope that you get that you can’t have the one without the other.” He squeezed Stender’s shoulder gently. “You don’t have to do this. We can keep at it the way we have been, or find another way. But if you want to expand now, and if you want that global network now, then we need those rights, and to get those rights we have to get leverage on McDowell, and to get that leverage you need to be seen riding into Rotterdam on your white horse. You need to go the distance that he won’t.”

Stender dragged a hand down his face. “I know, I know… and I do want to go global with this. Man, I need to go global with this, and I need as much leeway from politics as I can get. I just… I mean, have you seen the footage of Rotterdam right now? It’s a warzone. And I don’t feel like getting shot at again, you know? Been there, done that, didn’t care for it.”

“So we wait a month. See if things calm down a little. I’ve got ears on the ground with Zaheer, I’m pretty sure I can figure out a good time to strike, when it still looks impressive but actual danger is minimal. We hand-pick a squad to go with you, we drop you within a hundred feet of the target, lift you out as soon as you have the data-case, all while making you look like the best damn thing that happened to the States since Halver.”

Stender scoffed. “Halver’s a war criminal, Hugh. I don’t think I want to be remembered that way.”

Hugh shrugged, looking pensive. “You say that, but I can guarantee that a good ninety percent of all State-households don’t think of him that way. The man was ruthless, but he got us victories where no one else could, and that’s exactly what you’re going to do in Rotterdam. And the good thing is that you’re just about the only guy who can right now, without stepping on a million political toes. You already have a global presence with the corporation. You have good ties with just about every faction. If you manage to kick against some extremist shins in Rotterdam no one’s going to shoot you down for it. After all, when you do it you’re just protecting your assets. When McDowell does it he might as well be declaring war. You’re in a good spot here, buddy. I think we should take advantage of it.”

A silence stretched between them as Stender thought over his options. Hugh was right, of course. It was all about control, and Stender would never have enough of that until he could take his network globally, and for that he needed those broadcasting rights that McDowell guarded so diligently. In the end, the choice was to remain static, or to move on.

“Fuck it.” he muttered after a few moments. “Lets do it. You find a good time for it, preferably somewhere in January, and I’ll ride in with the cavalry and get some proactive, forward thinking, solution-driven ass kicking on.”

“Oh God, management-speak.” Hugh groaned. “I’ve changed my mind. You’re not the right person for the job, you really should be in politics. Sweet Jesus. I think you gave me an aneurysm. You owe me a beer for that, buddy.”

Stender slapped him on the back and nodded towards the nearest bar, Christmas-themed the same way every store on the street was. “Lead the way, man.” he grouched. As they crossed the street, small flakes of snow filled the air. “Seriously?” he muttered at the sky.

Hugh laughed at him. “Didn’t you get the memo, buddy? It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”

2293 – Beginning somewhere in the middle

It had been the third Monday of January. Hugh unironically selected the date because, as he put it, everyone would be feeling like shit that day anyway, and they needed a bit of good news. Or if it failed, then at least it wouldn’t bring people lower than they already were.

Stender pressed his back against the wall, and hoped for a way to fix the clusterfuck the mission had become. A bullet impacted into the wall two feet from where he was standing now, and he crouched low. He pressed his fingers to his earpiece. “Anderson! Where the fuck are you? Why is no one holding the corner?” His voice sounded frantic even in his own ears. The rifle in his hands felt alien, even though he’d been a soldier once. He’d been in combat before. Hell, he’d even been on missions like this before. But none within the last five years, and that had felt unimportant before he embarked on the shuttle this morning, but it sure as hell mattered now.

“Fuck.” he breathed, getting nothing but static over his connection with his team. Either his comm was broken, or they were all dead. Whatever it was, it still meant that he was on his own on a mission he’d never felt comfortable with. He could see his destination across the street. The building with his own corporation logo on the side. It might as well have been on the other end of town. He was pinned down by a group of anti-establishment rebels with guns. The briefing hadn’t covered the extent of their fire power anywhere near well enough.

He was pinned down. Pick up would happen from the rooftop of his own building. It had his logo on it and he was sure that somewhere, the name of his corporation was on the deed. His data-case was inside, but he couldn’t get inside without getting shot by people who had no idea who he was. He wasn’t sure if that was a good or a bad thing.

He needed to get to the top of the building, at the very least. A glance at his watch told him he had exactly thirty minutes before the helicopter would set down to lift him out of this nightmare. If it didn’t get shot out of the sky. If they didn’t have rocket launchers or something similar. If he missed his pick-up, they’d try again 12 hours later. Then they’d give up, but it was never supposed to get that far. The resistance was supposed to be minimal. “We’re going to have words about this.” He muttered angrily, thinking of all the reassurance Hugh had given him before he embarked.

It seemed like the firing had died down a little at least. Maybe the rest of his squad was dead. It wasn’t a comforting thought at the least, but he held on to it anyway. If they thought they’d killed the entire squad, then maybe no one would come looking for him. He braced himself against the wall, contemplating the options he had. There weren’t many. He had to get to his building. He’d have to make a run for it.

Just as he was about to push himself off the wall movement to his right caught his eye. He stared wide-eyed as he saw a young girl sprint across the street, limber as a deer. She couldn’t have been more than twelve years old. The sunlight caught on her hair. There was a red tinge to it, and it seemed a little tangled. Her clothes seemed a little dirty. His mouth dropped open as he saw her duck around a corner. He heard a door open and close. The street was quiet again, and there was a little girl inside his building.

“What the…” he whispered to himself. The girl had just sprinted across the street, through what had been a battlefield just a minute ago, and nothing had happened. Stender listened for a few more minutes, but the street remained silent. “Well… here goes nothing, kid.” With a sharp exhale he pushed away from the building, running towards his destination.

He slammed into the wall on the opposite side of the street, without being shot. He could feel his heart pounding in his throat as he ran into the alleyway, looking for the door. There was only one. “Please be open.” he uttered a silent prayer to whoever would listen and yanked on the door handle. It opened. The hallway behind it was dark. He removed his flashlight from his belt and stepped inside.

Inside the silence was oppressive. The sound of his own breathing was thunderous in his own ears. He pressed his ear to the door, but couldn’t hear anything beyond the rush of his own blood. It seemed quiet outside. Maybe he had gotten lucky. Maybe no one noticed two people rushing into a building in rapid succession. He glanced down at his watch. Twenty-five minutes until the first pick-up. He could make it.

The data-case was supposed to be on the fifth floor. The elevators were down, of course. He’d be surprised if there was any power at all in the building. The business segment of Rotterdam had been closed down completely after the bombings, which had been the start of his current predicament. “Fucking terrorists.” he found himself muttering. “Couldn’t blow up the damned Black City, could ya? No, it had to be the Rotterdam harbor district. Fuckers.”

The little girl was nowhere in sight. Stender wondered about her briefly, thinking of all the ways a girl that young could find herself in a situation this bad. The world was a mess, and there were a million ways for it to happen. She’d been lean though. Strong, from the looks of it. Maybe she’d survive this whole mess. Maybe she was better at it than Stender, who hadn’t been caught out this bad in over five years. Who had people to do this kind of work for him, usually. Either way, he hoped the little girl was safe. Maybe raiding the cafeteria. He’d heard good things about the cafeteria of this particular site.

His boots sounded loud on the polished floors. He imagined the sound was clear throughout the building. He just hoped he and the little girl were the only ones there to hear it, and that it wouldn’t scare her too much. “I’ll be out of your hair in twenty minutes.” he whispered, as if she could hear him. As if she’d care. For the first time that day he found himself smiling.

Five minutes later he found himself on the fifth floor, data-case in hand. It was small enough to fit into his back pocket, and worth more than every single building on this street put together. He hadn’t been joking with Hugh when he said that he’d take getting the case back over getting the broadcasting rights from McDowell. He could take another shot at getting the rights. Losing the case would damage his operations in a far more critical way. Of course that had been why he wanted to send a fully trained squad in, instead of going himself. His hands were still trembling around the flashlight. Nothing about this felt like ‘the good old days’. But then, he’d never cared much for his stint in the military, aside from how good it looked on his resume.

“Right. Time to get out of here.” He still had another fifteen floors to climb, and his ride would be waiting for him. A nice, comfortable shuttleride back Stateside, and then he could forget this ever happened. He could go back to his cushy retirement, as Hugh liked to call it. Back to business, only now with McDowell kissing his ass. He stuck his head out of the door and looked left and right. The hallway was empty, just as he’d left it. He spared another thought for the little girl. Why would someone that young be on her own anyway?

He felt an awkward twinge in his chest as he remembered the bombing of his own family home. He hadn’t been much older when he lost his entire family. At the time it had felt like he’d lost everything except his life. Years later he still felt the same way. He’d just rebuilt himself from the ground up. He’d become a different person all together. The only thing he kept from his youth was the family fortune, which he had since invested, quadrupled and more. No one from the old days would have recognized him anymore. Even his name was different. His mother could have walked right up to him in the street, and she wouldn’t have known the boy she raised.

Not that she could have. She died with the rest, after all. The corner of his mouth twisted in a wry half-smile. Wasn’t that the point of everything? The corporation, the data-case, the rights, everything he needed to gain more control. To ensure that no one could ever sneak up on him again, and steal his loved ones away. He ignored the little voice in his head that cheerfully told him those were few and far between as well, these days.

“Get a grip, buddy.” he told himself as he ran up the stairs. Ten floors to go, and he already wished the elevator was still working. His rifle was slung around his back. He was alone in here, after all. Just him and that lonely little girl, who was probably too scared of him to cause any trouble. Just wanted to be left alone. He could sympathize. “Just a few more minutes.” He promised himself and the girl.

He didn’t realize he’d made a mistake until he burst onto the rooftop and took a bullet to the leg. His momentum sent him sprawling onto the gravel. For a second the pain in his hands from where he caught himself eclipsed the pain in his thigh. For just one blissful second he could pretend he’d tripped. “Oh fuck.” he breathed, before the gunshot wound started throbbing in sharp, agonizing pain.

He struggled onto his back, his hands pressed firmly to his thigh to stop the bleeding. It didn’t feel like blood was rushing out too fast. Maybe he’d just gotten clipped. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as it looked. A shadow loomed over him all of a sudden, and a heavy boot kicked him in the chest, sending him flat against the gravel again. /Fuck./ He scrambled for his rifle, but the boot planted itself on his chest, and he found himself staring in the barrel of a gun.

“Easy, cowboy.” The man attached to the gun had a thick accent. Maybe Russian. Maybe Slavic. “No one else needs to die here today.” The man’s face was Russian too. All flat planes, a red nose from too much alcohol. His grip on his gun was unwavering though. Maybe a mercenary. Maybe not. “Except for your friends on the pod. They do need to die.” He sent a mean grin Stender’s way before bringing one hand up to the comm-piece in his ear, and uttering a few words in Russian. It definitely sounded like Russian to him. He’d need to take a few classes, if he made it out of this alive.

In the distance Stender could hear the humm of an approaching pod resonate between the buildings. It was a heavy, armored thing that had been commissioned for this mission especially. Stender heard it before he saw it, just like he heard the sound of a rocket being launched before he saw it flit through the sky. “No, wait!” he cried out, struggling to get to his feet. The man above him knocked him to the ground again. Seconds later the pod exploded in blue fire.

“Easy now, Mister Stender. There is no reason for struggling.” The man’s accent seemed even thicker now, following the explosion. Stender stared at him wide-eyed as he muttered a few more things into the comm-piece. “There.” The man said, looking terribly pleased with himself. “No more interruptions. Your squad is dead, your pod is broken. It is just you and me now. And what better place for Stender to die than on top of his own empire?”

“Who the fuck are you?” Stender ground out. There was something about the guy. Something vaguely familiar, tickling at the back of his memory. A face… Everything blacked out when the man stood on his wounded leg and pressed down. Stender screamed. He imagined he could hear the guy laughing above him.

“You don’t remember Vasilley? No, of course you don’t. I’m sure you push people out of their own operations every day, huh? Big man from the states.” He rolled his shoulders, chuckling a bit as of the genuinely thought the situation was amusing. “That’s alright though. This is not about revenge. This is about the data-case. I just wanted you to know who’s fucking you over before I kill you and burn your corporation to the ground. I would say, remember my name, but I’m going to blow your brains out in a moment, so it really does not matter.” He motioned with his left hand, while the gun was still fixed on Stender’s head with the other. “Come on. Give me the case, or I pry it from your cold dead body. I don’t care either way.”

“I do,” A shadow said from somewhere above them.

Stender barely had enough time to look up before he was hit with the warm arterial spray erupting from the man’s jugular. The little strawberry-blonde girl leaped down from above, ramming a knife deep into his throat. He squeezed the trigger of his gun, but his shot went wide from both Stender and the girl. She kicked at his hand. Stender imagined he heard the bones of his wrist crack as she knocked the gun away from him.

He staggered backwards, one hand at his throat, the other grasping the air in front of him, as if he could grab hold of the girl. The girl that moved like lightning, leaping at the guy. “Don’t!” Stender cried out, just as her feet landed square on the man’s chest. She flipped backwards, pushing off on the guy. The man stumbled backwards, over the edge of the roof just as she landed on her feet. He didn’t scream. Stender figured that was because of the knife in his throat.

Stender found himself staring at the girl. She really couldn’t be much older than twelve. Her hair was a little messy, as if she’d cut it herself, and a little dirty, as if she hadn’t managed to wash it properly for a while now. There were a few tears in her clothing, but she looked fairly well put-together. She had another knife stuck in her belt, and she was shifting back and forth on her feet, shyly almost.

“Uhm.” She said, giving him the same once-over he’d just given her. The corner of her mouth twitched when her eyes landed on his bleeding leg. “You probably shouldn’t run out onto a rooftop when you have no idea who might be waiting there for you. Because obviously, someone might be waiting for you.”

“Yeah, I figured that much.” Stender couldn’t help but grin at her. His ribs felt bruised from getting stomped on, his leg felt like it had a bullethole in it, and his life was just saved by someone half his size. “I’m Stender.” he said, because ‘thank you’ and ‘I’m the luckiest bastard that ever lived’ felt inadequate somehow.

The girl smiled at him. It was a tentative, wry little thing. “Yeah, I heard. With the whole ‘Easy now, Mister Stender’, thing.” she mimicked Vasilley’s accent to a tee when she said his name. Stender laughed first, then groaned. The girl stopped smiling. “I… uh… I’m Valentina.” She pressed her lips together, as if she wasn’t entirely sure about the words that just left her mouth. “But you can call me Val, I suppose.”

“Alright, Val. Do you think you can help me up? We should probably get inside, seeing how there were guys with rocket launchers not that long ago.” He struggled to sit upright, not noticing at first that Valentina isn’t moving until she cleared her throat. “What?” he asked, following her gaze. At his riffle. “Oh come on, I’m not going to shoot you. You’d stab me to death before I get myself untangled from this strap. I’ve been shot, some guy stood on me, a twelve year old saved my ass… I just need to lie down for a while.”

“Thirteen.” Val corrected him. “I’m thirteen, not twelve.” Apparently appeased by his words she made her way towards him, gently helping him sit up. “And what do you mean ‘some guy’? Don’t you know who that was?”

“Oh God everything hurts.” Stender groaned, carefully pulling himself up to his feet. “That guy?” He nodded in the direction where he tumbled off the rooftop. “No idea.” Val stepped in beside him, offering her shoulder to lean on. He could feel her body freeze.

“Wait, really? But he just tried to off you. He had the whole speech with it too, and you don’t even know who he was? What the hell?” She sounded frustrated with the situation. Stender just hoped she wasn’t frustrated with him. He’d seen what she could do with a knife. “That is so weird.” Val finally concluded, pulling him towards the door.

Inside it was still dark. With the power down and the sun setting the entire building would be trapped in darkness soon enough. “There’s an office down the hall that’s nice.” Valentina offered, flinching a little every time Stender took a step, because every time he took a step pain shot through his leg. “I’ve been living there a bit.” she continued, her voice easy and calm, as if he was a wounded animal and not a wounded person. Maybe she’d never had much occasion to deal with wounded people. He hoped not.

“You’ve been living here? Why here? Don’t you have a home?” Stender heard himself asking before he could swallow the words. He felt Valentina shrug under his arm, appearing unphased by his lack of tact.

“Nope.” was all the answer she had for him though. She helped him lean against the wall by the door. “Wait here for a bit, ok? I just wanna make sure it’s clear.” she whispered, sliding her knife out of her belt. Without a sound she opened the door to the office and slipped inside.

The silence that fell over him in the abandoned hallway was deafening, and stretched for minutes that felt like an eternity. Stender glanced down at his watch, mentally calculating the time for his next pick-up. If they hadn’t abandoned him. For all he knew Hugh would assume he was dead. He’d failed to check in, and if Vasilley had told the truth then Anderson wouldn’t be checking in either. The pod had been destroyed. Maybe they really thought…

He dropped his head against the wall. “Get a grip.” He told himself. The pick-up would be there, and if not he’d find a different way out. He’d been a soldier once. He could still do this, even if he’d done a piss-poor job of it so far. A loud click busted him out of his reverie. The office door swung open, and Valentina poked her head out.

“Hey.” she said, looking him over. “You look like shit. You should probably lie down.” Stender shuffled his way inside the office, finding it mostly empty and dark inside, except for a few candles that were lit next to the comfortable looking couch. It cast an eerie light into the otherwise sparsely decorated space. He flopped down on the cough, groaning as it jolted his leg.

“So, this is home, huh?” He looked around, curiosity getting the better of him. He could see signs of her living there, but none too obvious. One might think the cleaners had skipped a day or two. As he turned around he noticed a framed picture of a man looking frighteningly like himself, shaking he hand of another stern looking man. What was his name again? Van Kleef? “Huh.” he uttered. Valentina reappeared at his side. She grinned at him.

“Imagine my surprise when I saw you enter the building.” she said, nodding at the picture. “I mean, on the picture you’re all suited up and stuff, and now you’re wearing tac-gear, but I recognized your frowning face anyway.” She knelt down on the ground next to the couch and flashed an apologetic smile at him. Then she pressed a towel to his leg, and after a bright flash of pain everything went black around him.

He came to to the sound of her voice. She was babbling, half in Dutch and half in English. He barely understood one word in every ten. When he glanced down at his leg he saw that the wound was dressed. Primitively, and he’d definitely still need to get it looked at, but it wasn’t a poor field-dressing. “…And all that time I thought the fat guy owned this place, but now I know he just works here. Which is totally weird, because you’d expect the fat older guy to be the owner, not the young guy, but then I heard what your name was, and apparently the fat guy is at your beck and call. Who knew? Oh, hey, you’re awake.” She beamed at him from the armrest of the couch.

“How long was I out?” he managed to croak out. His throat felt parched, and his tongue felt like it was swollen twice the usual size. She winced slightly and handed him a bottle of water, which he chugged down gratefully.

She shrugged, flashing him that same half-guilty smile. “Not that long. Less than an hour, I think. I should have warned you, about that.” She gestured at his wounded leg. He shrugged.

“Nah, that’s fine. That’s not half bad. Where did you learn that?”

Her shoulders shuddered in another half-shrug. “Places. I’ve been on my own for quite a bit. Some hospitals don’t make too much of a fuss when you come in at night. I helped out a few nights. Mostly watched, helped holding stuff up, but it’s easy enough to pick up.

Stender knew it wasn’t his place to pry, but he couldn’t help it. She’d saved his life, maybe twice, and he was fascinated. “And that thing on the rooftop? Did you learn that in the hospital as well?” he found himself asking.

Val chuckled. “What, the thing with the knife and the kick? No, I didn’t learn that in the hospital.” She bit her lip and was silent for a moment, looking at her hands. Stender figured that that was all he was going to get from her, the elusive girl who could kill as easily as she could bandage wounds. To his surprise she carried on. “Streetgangs.” she muttered after a while.

She stared at the far wall, but kept talking. “I hang out with some streetgangs every now and then, when I don’t feel like being on my own. Some of the older kids are pretty good at fighting. They learned it on the street, like me, or sometimes they learned it in the juvenile correctional institution, or even from their parents. Either way, some of them didn’t mind teaching me a few things.”

She rubbed at her hands. It was an oddly self conscious gesture. Her voice wavered a little, but she went on. “When I was like… ten or something, I used to hang out with these two kids from the orphanage. We… uh… we ran away, because that place was a mess, and we figured we could take care of ourselves. I mean, even when my foster parents were still alive I already spent more time on the street than inside, so…” She shrugged, as if that explained everything. Maybe it did.

“Anyway, we mostly got by on the streets. Some of the gangs were a little nasty, but we were all quick, right? And we figured no one could beat us up if they couldn’t catch us, so we made sure we’d never be caught.” Her lips curved into a wry smile. “You should’ve seen Thomas, he was like a ninja, you know? Always bouncing off walls and shit.” She shook her head, as if she suddenly remembered where she was. “So… yeah… that’s where I learned to do that thing with the jumping and the knives.”

Stender found himself staring at her as if she was some kind of mythical, never before seen creature. He could picture her running along the streets, stealing to survive. “I didn’t know things were this rough in Rotterdam.” he heard himself say. Valentina shrugged again.

“I suppose you could call it rough. I mean, Rotterdam is a lot worse than other cities around here, or so I’ve been told. Aside from the harbor district people don’t really care about the city, I guess, so pretty much all the scum in a hundred mile radius comes here. Takes more time to clean up, I guess.” She shrugged again, as if it didn’t really matter to her.

Stender couldn’t imagine what her life was like. It fascinated and horrified him at the same time, thinking of how this skinny little girl had been forced to survive on the street. Then he mentally kicked himself in the teeth. /It was her choice/. She’d said as much. And if anything, she was more capable than most people he knew when it came to survival.

He was still trying to wrap his head around it while she drummed on her knees with her fingertips, looking a little uncomfortable for the first time since he met her. “So I was thinking… you probably need to get that thing out of here, right?” She asked, her voice hesitant.

“What thing?” Stender asked, still lost in thought.

“That thing you picked up from the fifth floor. The thing the guy was going to kill you for? You know, the box, in your back pocket.” She made him sound like an idiot.

“Oh, this?” His heart skipped a beat as he pulled the data-case out of his back pocket. It appeared in-tact, but he couldn’t be sure of that until he got it back Stateside and connected to his network. “This is a data-case. It contains… well, just about everything there is to know about my corporation and more. All of my plans, information on my opposition. The works.”

As he spoke the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. It was so easy to trust little Valentina, with her easy wit and her smiles, but he’d seen her kill a man not too long ago. What would stop her from prying the data-case from his cold dead fingers? And here he sat, waving the thing in front of her, because he… what? figured she was on his side?

He was broken out of his reverie when a pillow hit his face. “Dude. I’m not going to steal your data-box from you. You can stop with the panicking, because it’s not going to happen.” She sounded a little disgruntled. “I wouldn’t know what to do with it if I got it anyway. And it would be totally counterproductive. I just saved your life!” Her angry glare told him she was not impressed.

Stender shook his head. “Sorry, I’m just… not really used to people saving my life without wanting anything in return.” He shrugged, feeling as if he was the thirteen year old kid in this conversation. It wasn’t a feeling he enjoyed much. He cleared his throat. “There’s another pick-up scheduled for me in… well, ten hours from now.” he offered instead.

Valentina shook her head. “On the rooftop again? Man, that’s the worst idea. Didn’t you see what happened to the pod? Besides, maybe they think you’re dead. You can sit around and wait for people to figure out that you’re not dead, and either come to save you or kill you and steal your box, or you can come with me. There’s a maintenance tunnel that leads to the metro about twenty feet from the door, and that leads straight to the harborfront. There’s a navy ship over there. I’m sure you can show them some ID, then you can call your friends and then they can come pick you up.” She nodded decisively, as if she’d spent the hour while he was out coming up with the plan.

“Why are you helping me?” Stender asked, his eyes fixed on Val’s face. She looked down at her hands again, looking shy for the first time since he met her. “I meant what I said, Val. I’m not used to people saving my life for nothing.”

“I just thought…” Val started, her lips quivering slightly. She looked every bit as young as she really was, “I mean, I just hoped…” She looked up at him, her eyes shining a little in the candlelight, “Take me with you? Just Stateside, I can make my own way from there. I just… I don’t want to be here anymore. I’ve been here all my life and I just can’t get out of this place, and…”

She rambled on for about a minute, until Stender reached over and touched her knee. “Hey. Of course I’ll take you with me. Of course. God, that’s the least I can do. You saved my /life/, Valentina. That’s worth something. That’s worth everything to me.”

2296 – The worst and best is yet to come

He exhaled slowly, his hands tight around the door handle. His heart felt like it was beating a mile a minute, and he felt like he was losing control. For the first time in nearly two decades he felt like he was losing control.

On the other side of the door his protégée, the sixteen year old girl he’d taken under his wing after she saved his life in Rotterdam was telling his new associate that he’d never touched her inappropriately. That he, Stender, was not a child abuser. Because that’s what the other woman had thought. Irina Weisz, victim of years of abuse herself, had thought that Stender was molesting Valentina.

And it broke him. There was no other way to describe it. He felt like he couldn’t breathe, even though he talked himself through the exercises that Valentina had taught him, right after she’d learned herself. Calming breaths, the way her martial arts instructors had taught her. The way she had taught him.

Part of him wanted to walk into that kitchen, and explain that Irina wasn’t seeing it right. That she was perverting something that meant the world to him. He would never hurt Valentina. He would never force himself onto her. She was family to him in a way that went beyond blood, beyond reason.

His fingers tightened around the door handle again, but he knew he was pointless. He wasn’t going to walk out there. Even though he knew Valentina was struggling, even though he could hear it in her voice he couldn’t go out there. He couldn’t pull her out of the situation, the way he’d done in Rotterdam three years ago. If he interrupted, Irina would see her point proven. He swallowed against the bitterness in his throat as he wondered how often Solchov had stood behind her, his hand on her back while he forced her to pretend she wanted to be there with him. How often he had made her lie. No matter what he said now, Irina wouldn’t believe it. She had to hear it from Valentina.

So he listened instead. His fingers shook as he pulled them away from the door and he slowly stepped back. He stepped back until his legs hit the bed, and he sagged down, feeling boneless while he heard Valentina talk about their relationship, and how it was family, and nothing else. And everything else. He listened, letting her words flow over him, pulling him back from the edge he was on.

/I trust him more than I trust myself./ He heard her say. He exhaled slowly, feeling his heart slow in his chest. He knew, of course. He’d always known. She had even told him, during those long nights in the beginning when she’d been unable to sleep, unused to the sounds of the compound, and too wired still to feel safe anywhere. Except with him. Valentina had always felt safe with him, even before she knew him. Even when she’d just been hiding out in his building, and had only known him from a picture.

Valentina had sought him out. She’d saved his life. She trusted him more than anyone, and he knew he could trust her just the same. He felt it in his bones. Valentina sleeping in his home was as much a comfort to him as it was to her. A familiar heartbeat. More than family. She knew him better than anyone, and that went both ways.

He shook himself out of his reverie, hearing the conversation between his protégée and his associate wind down. He exhaled again, slowly. When he opened the door his hands were steady and his face neutral, as if he hadn’t just heard Irina accuse him of molesting the one person in the world that made him feel human. He glanced between them, offering a small smile. It was all he could do, and it didn’t feel adequate.

2300 – The end of the world as we know it

The sky erupted in a thousand different colors, signaling the start of the twenty-fourth century. The sound of fireworks was deafening, the cheer of every single person at the party was rowdy, and Stender missed most of it, hidden away in a corner of his private balcony as he was. He hadn’t counted, but there had to be over a thousand people at the party. ‘Close friends and family only’, Sybil had assured him.

“Close friends and family, my ass.” Stender grouched to himself. He understood the value of having these people over, of course. Every event was good for networking. But for once he would have liked to have the turn of the year to himself, actually with his close friends and family. He shook his head, smiling at himself. That would’ve been just Valentina then, on the family-side of things. Maybe just Valentina on the close friends-side of it too, on days when he felt particularly cynical. He swirled his whiskey in his glass.

Today felt like one of those days. Hugh was inside somewhere, schmoozing. They weren’t as close as they’d been seven years ago. The days when he trusted Hugh to have his back in a tight situation were long gone. Hugh was a player, and he loved the game more than he loved anything, even though he’d never own to it. On the surface of it all they were still as close as brothers, but Stender hadn’t trusted him with anything vital in a long time. Not since Rotterdam, if he was entirely honest with himself, and he tried to be.

In a world where people made it their life’s mission to suck up to him, the only person he could count on to always be honest with him was himself. Well, and Valentina, but he’d known long ago that Valentina was the exception to every single rule he ever made.

Including the rule that he didn’t give anyone the codes to his private quarters, but as the balcony door slid open he realized that this rule didn’t apply to Valentina either. “Hey.” he said, not bothering to turn around. There really was only one person it could be.

“You missed the countdown.” Her voice was soft and steady. Surprisingly sober too, but he hadn’t really expected her to mainline champagne with the rest of his guests anyway. There were too many predators out and about. He felt her appear by his side, the warmth of her radiating through his suit. Maybe he should ditch the tie.

After a moment he glanced to his side, where Valentina looked radiant in her expensive evening gown. Her hair was a little messy. She’d probably been dancing earlier, and Hugh probably tried to ruffle it when he wished her a happy new century. “Beautiful.” She breathed, her eyes on the fireworks in the distance.

“Loud.” Stender countered, just to be obstinate. She threw her head back and laughed. It was the best thing he’d heard all evening. “I’ll come back inside in a minute.” he offered, knowing damn well that Sybil was probably ready to gut him because he had guests to entertain.

Valentina shrugged. “I think eighty percent of the people inside are drunk, and the other twenty percent is either annoyed, harassed or embarrassed by drunk people. They can spare you for a few more minutes. Sybil might disagree, though.” She finally turned her head to look at him with a merry twinkle in her eyes. She looked like she owned the world. Like the universe had no more secrets for her. Like the only thing that still confused her was Stender. It was a silly notion. Stender felt like he was an open book around her.

“Happy New Century.” he finally said. She smiled at him again, softer this time. Even her eyes were soft as she leaned in and kissed him on the cheek.

“You too.” She whispered in his ear. In the distance the fireworks raged, and the party inside the compound would go on for hours still, but out on his balcony it felt quiet. It felt like they were in the eye of the storm.

“Sybil would probably want me to tell you you’re a bad host, and you need to get your ass back inside now.” She said with a cheeky grin. Stender deflated a little. If it was up to him they’d stay outside all night. Val nudged his shoulder. “But I’m glad I caught you out here on your own for a minute. There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you, but it never really felt like the right time.”

Stender arched an eyebrow at his protegée, ignoring the way his heart seemed to skip a beat. Next to him Val bit her lip, oblivious to the way his hands suddenly felt clammy. He pulled at his tie, trying to loosen it a little. “No, you can’t kill Gershan. I know it might seem like good sport now, but Irina would mind.” He joked. Valentina rolled her eyes at him.

“Please, as if I’d ask your permission for that.” she scoffed. “Besides, he’s actually quite nice, once you get past the whole coldblooded killer facade. And kind of pretty, with that ponytail and those soulful eyes. I see why she likes him.” She batted her eyelashes at Stender, until he had no choice but to give her a little shove.

“But that’s not what I wanted to ask.” She shifts slightly from one foot to the other. In her heels she was tall, but that wasn’t it. She wore them often enough to be comfortable in them. It was almost as if she was nervous. She looked down at her hands, and for a moment Stender couldn’t breathe, remembering exactly how she’d looked seven years ago in Rotterdam, before she asked him to take her Stateside with him.

“I…” she started. Stender could barely hear her over the pounding of his heart. “I want to join the league.” She blurted out. Stender stopped breathing for a moment. He stopped thinking for a moment. He almost felt like his entire life stopped for a moment, because Valentina, little Valentina wanted to join the league that he had set up. Valentina wanted to join in deathmatches. She wanted to risk her life, time and time again.

What felt like an eternity later Stender shook his head. Valentina was still talking. He could hear her clearly now as she explained in perfectly rational sounding terms why it made perfect sense for her to throw herself in harms way time and time again. Before he realized what he was doing he fell down in one of the loungechairs on his balcony, cradling his head in his hands.

“Woah!” Valentina exclaimed, kneeling by his side in a second. Again he was reminded of Rotterdam, how she’d tended to his wounds. “Easy there…” she muttered, her hands rubbing up and down his thighs in a comforting gesture.

He shook his head. “I’m alright.” he managed to croak. “Headrush. Maybe I had more to drink than I thought.” Only he hadn’t. His whiskey stood forgotten on the balcony railing. It had only been his second. Val smiled at him in a way that told him she knew he was full of shit, but she was too polite to call him on it.

“I know it’s a bit of a surprise, but… we’ve talked about the league, Stender. We’ve watched it together, you and me. And you know I could do better than any of those other schmucks. You know I can. You’ve… you’ve said as much, Stender, and I want it. I want it more than anything. And I can win. I can… I’ll be the greatest thing you’ve ever seen. I promise.”

Valentina looked up at him with eyes that were bright with excitement and anxiety. Stender found himself looking at her for long moments. Really looking at her, the way he so rarely allowed himself to do. Then he closed his eyes, and imagined seeing her through the cold, unforgiving lenses of a hundred camera’s. Imagined sitting on the edge of his seat, watching her kill for sport. She’d be magnificent, and league-fans around the world would worship her.

He opened his eyes and looked at her. With every second that ticked past she looked more and more anxious. As if she expected him to say no. As if he had the ability to say no. He’d never had that. Seven years since she first asked something from him, and he hadn’t learned how to deny her anything in all that time. “All right.” He heard himself say, his voice surprisingly calm.

Her eyes went wide. For a moment Stender sat there, watching about a dozen emotions flit across her face before it settled in pure joy. She threw her arms around his neck and held on for dear life as she squealed. He wrapped his arms around her and allowed himself to hold her tight. It was the start of a new century, and for the first time that night and many nights before Stender felt like it was the start of something new. The overjoyed young woman in his arms believed it was the start of something amazing. Stender closed his eyes, and wished he could feel the same.

2297: Crash Tactics

Posted: February 23, 2014 by Kelly in stories, the world

Irina had been searching for Gershan, but she finds him together with Valentina, entangled in a furious fight. The two of them are a blur of motion on the mats, outlined by the silver sunlight from outside.

It is obvious that they’ve been fighting for a while by the time Irina enters the gym. Both of them are sweating and out of breath. They are not talking; apparently the time for taunting and barbs has passed a while a go. But they are shining, the both of them. They are both sporting brilliant smiles, as if what they’re doing is the best thing in the world, something they can share with one another.

It’s a flurry of punches, kicks and blocks; and while most of the attacks are feints and many of them do not even connect, the times that the blows do connect, Irina nearly flinches. Neither of them is holding back. They are fighting because that’s what they are; poetry in motion, dancing. Testing defenses, jumping, swirling around one another.

They look beautiful together. Irina crosses her arms and leans against the wall. Whatever she wanted to ask of Gershan is for now completely irrelevant, this comes first. She’s not going to disturb them, not while they are so completely in their own world. She will be the last person in the world to break this apart.

She hardly ever has the chance to see Gershan truly display his skill. He’s been her muscle and her bodyguard for /years/, but she’s hardly ever really seen him fight. His opponents were never that skilled. They were never two-fold League champions like Valentina is. To see this is a rare treat and Irina allows herself a moment to indulge in the sight of it.

Irina still remembers so very clearly the first time Gershan and Valentina had met, six months ago in this very gym. Irina had been showing him the facilities and Valentina had been hanging out in the gym hall. She had climbed onto some rack and had been hanging off it, upside down, legs hooked around the railing. Her face was red, but she was smiling. “Hi Irina,” she had called from the other side of the hall. “Hi person with Irina!”

Despite herself, Irina had smiled at he younger girl. “Hello Valentina,” she’d said. “I have someone I’d like you to meet.”


Later, Irina had no idea how Valentina did it. It was half skill, half completely ignoring gravity. Without using her hands, she pushed herself off the railing with her feet, turned around mid-air, and landed gracefully on the mats as if it was nothing. Valentina casually walked over at them and stuck out her hand to greet Gershan. “Hi,” she said. “Valentina Marin, nice to meet you.”

And when Irina looked at Gershan, she could see the interest in his eyes. He had noticed the way Valentina moved – just like Irina had, the first time they met – and he had recognised her for what she was. Before they’d spoken, Gershan had taken complete measure of the girl. “Pjotr Gershan, and likewise. You can just call me Gershan if you like,” he said with his easy smile. “Irina’s giving me a tour of the Compound and promised me you had a great gym here. ”

She had smiled back at him – somewhat wary despite being completely friendly. “She’s right, this is a great gym. The place has just been redecorated. I gave Stender some improvement suggestions.”

Irina remembers so clearly how Gershan’s hazel eyes had flitted across the room, taking in the top-of-the-line gym equipment before they landed back on the strawberry haired girl. Assessing the threat, despite his pleasant smile. “It looks great. Do you work out here a lot?”

It was just a short exchange, but even without words there was conveyed so much. It was interesting to see their conversation. It was so pleasant and they seemed to be connecting easily, but underneath all of that were two predators taking measure of the other animal in their territory. Even on that day, when they talked about fighting techniques and athletics, Irina could see the seeds being sown for what would be a match one day.

It hasn’t taken them very long to get to this point. Six months, maybe? Irina wonders which one of the two has actively sought the other out for a match. The fight ebbs and flows from playful testing to serious blows. They are not holding back; she can see a couple of huge bruises beginning to appear on Valentina’s upper right arm and Gershan’s nose seems to be swollen (is it broken again?), but they are still smiling while Gershan manages to swipe Valentina to the floor. Valentina easily rolls out of his reach and within the second the both of them are back on their feet, already circling one another again.

Step, strike, kick-kick-kick, around and around they go, testing each other, smiling at each other. And then they nod at one another, and the moment of smiling and playfulness is gone. The unspoken truce they had for a couple of seconds vanishes instantly, as if it never existed in the first place and they’re trying to /kill/ each other again. It looks like it, at least. Irina hardly has the time to get really worried, because before she knows it, it ends.

It’s just a fraction of an instant – it goes so fast that she can hardly follow their movements.

The next moment Gershan’s foot connects with Valentina’s side with a sickening crunch. Irina hears bones break and thinks /oh dear, those were her ribs/ but Valentina retaliates; or maybe she’s already hitting him the moment his foot touches her flesh – but the next moment Gershan stumbles backwards, wheezing and grabbing towards his throat. The place where she got him.


“Are you okay?” Irina calls out as she runs towards the two.

Valentina has staggered backwards the other way, cradling her ribs. She nods tersely and indicates with her head that Irina should check with Gershan, who is struggling for breath. His face is red and his hazel eyes are bright with the onset of panic.

/He really fucking isn’t. Shit./ Irina connects to her alarm service and thank God, they pick up immediately. They have her coordinates already, all she has to do is demand access to a regen device and give a sketch of the situation at hand. Nobody makes a fuss. They simply come over immediately, just because Irina Weisz is asking. Sometimes it’s good to be richer than God. “It’s okay, they’ll be here soon,” she promises Gershan, while he coughs and splutters up blood, unable to breathe right. Her heart flutters in her chest – suddenly everything has become serious.

A minute later the paramedics arrive with a portable regen device. They triage the two combatants and Gershan gets to use the regen device first, because he can’t breathe. Valentina, however, complains of heavy chest pains and coughs up blood as well, which indicates a possible collapsed lung. She goes into the regen device right after Gershan. Golden light washes all of her injuries away, even the array of bruises over her body. Even her broken ribs.

Gershan doesn’t watch Valentina’s procedure. He just lies on the mat next to her feet, his arm draped over his eyes, breathing deeply and gratefully. He’s pulled the elastic band from his hair, allowing his blond hair to spill freely over the green mats.

“Are you okay?” Irina asks him again, watching while Valentina is healed of her injuries and shooting a message to Stender. He will probably want to know.

At least she gets an affirmative answer this time. “Yeah,” Gershan says. “Just breathing.”

/Something that was impossible a moment ago. You let her through your defenses and she nearly killed you for it. You broke her ribs and collapsed her lung. The both of you, you were trying to kill one another and you call it exhilarating./ “So was it worth it?”

Gershan removes his arm from his face and looks up at her with that brilliant, winning smile she knows so well from him. “Yeah. She’s amazing.”

“You’re not so bad yourself,” Valentina suddenly says while the paramedics help her off the regen platform. Her strawberry coloured hair is plastered to her face and she looks exhausted, but healthy enough as she sits down on the floor. “I had fun.”

Irina chuckles dryly. “You two nearly killed one another.”

Gershan laughs. “Exactly.”

She shakes her head. “You’re both insane.”

“Exactly,” Valentina now says, and the both of them laugh – until Stender comes stalking in, demanding to know what the hell happened here.

“They needed to get something off their chest, apparently,” Irina tells her boss, lending a hand to her lover to help him up. “So do you feel better now?”

“Fuck yes,” Gershan says wholeheartedly while he stands up. His hazel eyes are sparkling as if the choking thing never happened. He smiles at Valentina who smiles back at him. It is like the two of them share a secret that the rest of the world will never understand.

“Then please don’t ever do that again, okay?”

She wonders if they mean it when they make their promise. She wonders if she wants them to keep it.

2306: When smoke covers everything

Posted: February 23, 2014 by Kelly in league, stories

City streets, late spring
When smoke covers everything
That’s where we push our eyes
In front of ourselves
For being true, for being hurt

-Ef, “Hello Scotland”

In spite of her sweet smiles, Saxa Owens feels as uncomfortable and awkward as she’s ever been. She stands in the middle of the room, surrounded by people she doesn’t know, who shake her hands and squeeze her shoulder as if they are closely acquainted. They are congratulating her on the fact that she made it out of the Euroleague alive. No, that’s not true, they are congratulating her on her /victory/, because that’s what happens when you bash your opponent’s face in. You win the Euroleague and everybody loves you.

They’ve made her wear a golden dress as well. Saxa had wanted to wear silver because she likes it better, but her stylist had insisted on gold. “You’re a winner, you should wear gold. Silver is for second place.”

“Second place doesn’t exist in the League,” Saxa had retorted, but she’d given in eventually. It’s only for a night anyway, and the dress is complimented with the golden threads that they’ve wound around her dreadlocks. Together with some subtle makeup, she looks as classy as someone with her looks can be. Every time she glimpses herself in the mirror, she startles. She doesn’t look like herself. She doesn’t /feel/ like herself. But then again, she hasn’t felt like herself ever since she let go of Merle Jourin’s hair.

The music and the unfamiliar crowd don’t help. She’s on her fourth glass of champagne by now. Supposedly it’s a very expensive brand, but she hardly tastes it. She hardly has the time to drink it, either. It’s busy. Everybody wants to talk to her. She smiles sweetly at everybody and exchanges all the required pleasantries. She hardly knows who she’s talking to. Sponsors, celebrities.

When Karl joins her, he’s like a haven of rest and familiarity. “Overwhelming, huh, these parties,” he says with that lovely voice of his. His accent is tinged by the Dregs as much as hers is, and somehow it makes her feel at home.

“I don’t even know who these people are, but I’m glad they’re happy for me, I suppose.”

“Try to enjoy yourself, at least. I meant what I said when I announced your victory, Saxa. You deserve it. God knows you’ve worked hard for it.” The tall silver-haired Euroleague announcer smiles at her, and his smile is as pleasant as his voice.

“Thank you,” she says earnestly. She can almost accept it from him.

He stands with her for a while, introducing her to people, leading pleasant conversations and giving her a little rest, but at some point someone calls him away and she goes back into the crowd, talking to people, smiling and laughing on cue. By her fifth (or is it sixth?) glass of champagne she can feel the alcohol starting to do its work. She relaxes a little, she smiles a little wider. She doesn’t feels as uncomfortable in her own skin anymore.

She chats with her Fortress trainer for a while as well, who is mightily proud of his apprentice – his first protegée to make it out of the League. Duncan was nice enough to train with her this year, after her time in boot camp last year had ended so messily. He’s nice when he smiles. She half-heartedly flirts with him, until he tells her that he’s actually married. To a guy.

It’s the first time they’ve actually had a personal talk, and that’s something she’s grateful for. For all the weeks in the Fortress last year, and the two months this year, it suddenly seems like she hardly knows the guy. He inquires after her plans for using her League-earned fortune to start a dojo and gives her tips on starting her own business. It’s nice. She invites him to come visit her when her dojo is done and to have a sparring match for old time’s sake, which he accepts with a smile that is too genuine to be a pleasantry.

All in all it’s shaping up to be a nice evening, and then she suddenly meets Valentina Marin.


It’s a routine that is familiar to her by now. Valentina does not attend every victory party, but it would be rude not to show her face here, less than an hour away from her home in the Lowlands. It’s expected of her, and she doesn’t want to disappoint. Saxa’s victory had been deserved, and somewhat overdue, according to some analysts speaking on the matter.

“I’m glad for her,” she tells Vermeer, who is standing at her side, smiling politely at a few sponsors. “It won’t completely erase the stain on last years competition, but it should go a long way at least.”

“Well, she was definitely the best of the bunch this year. It’s a damned shame we won’t see her compete against Lane, or Le Blanc for that matter. Now that would have been a show,” he says. He places his hand on Valentina’s lower back, and guides her over to a golden Saxa Owens. “Lets get this over with, shall we?”

“Why David, if I didn’t know any better I’d say you’re not enjoying yourself,” Val says, smirking at him.

“Oh, you know I Iove a good party. I would however prefer to get out of here before you stab someone in the throat with a broken champagne glass.”

She laughs at that. “Is it that obvious? I could be training right now, but instead we’re here, shaking hands like the trained monkeys we are.”

“Lets go and be monkeys then. I’d like to be home before midnight,” he says, and guides her towards Saxa. Valentina lets herself be guided, and grasps Saxa’s hand when it’s offered.

“Congratulations. Your victory was much deserved.”

The other woman blinks at her, as if she’s startled. Then she smiles. She doesn’t relax, though. “Oh, thank you Valentina. So will yours be in a few weeks time. You’re going for six out of six, I presume?”

Valentina laughs at that. It sounds sharp even to her own ears. “No, I was thinking of letting someone kill me this year to shake things up a little. I hear people are getting bored of my winning streak.”

“If you do, make sure it happens after you take out Le Blanc, please. Can you do me that favour?” Saxa’s green eyes narrow with sudden clarity. She seems to mean it.

“Would you like me to smash his head in against the pavement, or can I just feed him a bullet?” Valentina says, her smile softening slightly, “I’m versatile, so I’m sure something can be arranged. You surprise me though, I thought you’d have more love for your fellow Euroleague victor.”

“Kidding, right? The guy’s a total son of a bitch.” Saxa shakes her head, making her gold-threaded hair dance on her shoulders. Then she sighs. “He also killed Milan, so he deserves some agony for that one. Come see me after your victory. If you’ve made it hurt, I’ll buy you a beer.”

“Come to my victory party, and you can hand me a drink there,” Val says, snagging a glass of champagne from the hands of a waiter. “I’m still surprised though. If it hadn’t been Le Blanc it would have been Lane or yourself who killed Milan. There were only two people in that bootcamp that had a chance at winning, and your friend Milan wasn’t one of them. He was good, don’t get me wrong there, but he wasn’t that good.”

The other woman flushes unexpectedly. “A lesson learned too late. Turns out that killing your friends is a bitch… Turns out that seeing your friends die is even worse. You’ve only done bootcamp once, right? It’s a nasty piece of business, making you care for people and then kill them. Anyway, I…” she shrugs and shakes her head, before downing her glass of champagne in one go. “I just wanted to wish you good luck in the Northern League. Make sure you win. I’d rather see you than Le Blanc take that title.”

Valentina’s smile softens slightly, but only in the curve of her mouth. Her eyes haven’t reflected her smile at any point during the evening yet. “Thank you. Congratulations in your victory again. You were good, and I hope you’ll stay the hell out of the arena from now on. It’s not for everyone. You seem like a good person, Saxa, I’d hate to see you lose yourself in the League.” She reaches for Saxa’s hand and gives it a squeeze. “If you do decide to go back to the League, come see me. We’ll talk about it without the buzz of all these social butterflies.”

Saxa smiles back warmly and squeezes back in Valentina’s hand. “I will. I suppose this is the part where we smile and pose for the cameras, then?”

As if on cue, they turn around. Saxa lays her arm around Valentina’s shoulders – slowly, telegraphing her moves clearly – and they smile at the cameras together. Like the League winners they are. As if it doesn’t cost anything.


After the exchange, Saxa feels weak in her knees. She makes her way out of the too-hot venue and sits down on a bench in the meticulously maintained garden. A patch of flowery green in the middle of Eclat, where hardly any green is to be found. They must be spending tons of money and effort to keep those bushes in bloom. It’s nearing 10pm and the sky above her is dramatically painted in the colours of sunset. The shadows in the garden are dark.

It’s just her and the spring evening, there is no one else in the garden for now. No one followed her. She stays aware, though. Part of her will probably always /be/ aware, since the Euroleague.

Saxa lays her head in her neck and stares up at the ribbons of bright pink and red in a lavender sky, trying to process what she’s actually feeling right now. She feels shaky and unsettled, and it’s not only because she’s overwhelmed and tipsy. It’s not even because she’s star-struck at meeting a legend like Valentina Marin.

It is the look in the other woman’s eyes. That empty look of a killer, that complete void of compassion or anything resembling caring. She knows what it’s like, to just turn off a switch and let go of all empathy. To see human beings as /things/, as something to compete with, to not think of pain and death as something that destroys lives. Just as a tool to win. She’s been there.

Duncan had called it the kill zone. She had been there, when she bashed Merle Jourin’s face in on that concrete ridge. It was cold, and empty, and almost animal-like. Just survival. Acting on instinct. That instinct, that brief flash of killing before you are killed, she will forever remember what that feels like. Just like the moment that the illusion of emptiness shattered, and her fingers were tangled in the hair of a corpse and there was blood everywhere. She’ll remember that forever as well.

/Why does this bother me so much?/ She’d killed other people in the Fortress and the League. Merle Jourin hadn’t been the first. She killed three people in the Euroleague. Two in the Fortress. She’d almost killed Walter in boot camp. It’s just that Jourin had been the last.

And then suddenly she knows what the difference is: the others were killed by bullets. Merle had been a hand-to-hand combat situation. Just like her unexpected shot at Walter – it had just hit so much closer to home, because it was unexpected and more visceral. A long distance shot is a thrill. Something up close and personal – to see the pain and the light go out in the eyes of the others… “I can’t do that,” Saxa whispers to the red sky.

/I’d hate to see you lose yourself in the League,/ Valentina Marin had said, with empty eyes that were firmly in the kill zone.

Sitting there on that stone bench, Saxa understands what the five-fold Northern League champion means.

She hears a sound behind her; the sound of the glass doors opening. She stands up and finds her trainer in the door opening. Duncan smiles at her, music streaming around him. “There you are!”

Saxa smiles faintly. “Just needed some air, sorry.”

“No problem, it’s your party. You can have air if you want to. Are you coming back?”

/No,/ she nearly says, but then realises that he means coming back to her victory party, not to the League. “Yes, yes of course I’ll come back,” she says, and walks over to join him.

Not to the League. She doesn’t want to lose herself anymore.


2307: Fireflies and Empty Skies

Posted: February 23, 2014 by Kelly in Uncategorized

Kristian has only been asleep for an hour or so when the buzzer for his doorbell cuts violently through the silence of his apartment. “Fuck you,” he growls at the buzzer and turns over in his bed, intent on going back to sleep again. The glowing numbers on his alarm clock tell him that it’s just shy of 3am. It is going to be a busy day tomorrow. He needs his sleep and for fuck’s sake, the fact that the rest of Amsterdam gets drunk on Friday night doesn’t mean that /he/ has to suffer for it.

The buzzer goes off again. Longer. More incessantly. On and on, like it will never stop.

And of course the control panel is on the other side of his room. Kristian lets out a sound that holds the middle between a vile curse and a sigh of exasparation while he stumbles out of bed and slams on the control pad. “What the fuck do you want?” he asks into the intercom.

There’s laughter on the other side. Female laughter. /What the hell?/

“Wake up Kris, we wanna fight!” a bright voice sounds over the connection. He half-recognises the voice but is unable to place it, so he calls up the video images next to his front door. When the image comes through three seconds later, he recognises Lannie Willams immediately. His main ammo supplier for the Arena, but most of all a very good friend. They’ve known each other for years. She is leaning heavily against the wall, grinning lop-sidedly into the camera with a cheer that goes beyond her usual brightness. She’s drunk as balls. Stimms and booze, he guesses. There’s another girl with her, but her face is in the shadows and Kris cannot even begin to guess who she might be.

“Lannie,” he sighs, rubbing over his face. “Do you know what time it is?”

“Stupid o’clock,” she giggles. “Like us. Please Kris, let us fight. Just gimme the key to the arena, I promise we won’t burn the place down!”

“Like hell you will,” he bites back. “Lannie, I love you to bits but seriously; are you out of your fucking mind? I just closed the place down, I want to fucking sleep. Go and fight in an alleyway if you want.”

She falls silent for a bit, looks over he shoulder to the other young woman behind her. “But I wanna fight Valentina!” she whines in that tone of hers that she only uses when she /wants/ something. “Valentina wants it too, right Val?”

The other young woman steps forward; enough to be illuminated by the camera lights next to the door. “Pleaaaaaase?” she asks, grinning sunnily, leaning against Lannie.

“Yeah, pleaaaaase?”

For a moment, Kristian Kardusen cannot think. His heart skips a beat. He stares at the two young women before his front door and blinks. Once, twice, just to see whether he’s seen it right. “Lannie, is that Valentina Marin?”

“Yeah!” she shouts enthusiastically, obviously glad that he’s out of his denial mode for now. “So we wanna fight. Can we? Please Kris? You’re my best friend, can you do this for me?”

He blinks at the six fold Northern League Champion; leaning heavily on the shoulder of his friend, the identical pleading expressions on their faces. There’s one moment where he thinks of the great press it would be to have promos of the actual fucking Northern League Champion and arguably the best arena fighter in the history of the goddamn /world/ shooting up the shit in his City Arena in Amsterdam. About how fun it would be to see her fight Lannie, whose Rookie League career started in his own Arena. Just one moment.

The next moment his hand is on the intercom and he says: “Give me five minutes, I’ll be right with you.”

He’s grinning like an idiot while he picks up his clothes from the floor.


It’s not the first time they’ve had this discussion. Hell, it’s not even the tenth time. They keep circling back to this point whenever they drink.

“I can totally take you,” Lannie says, her mouth curved in a shit-eating grin as she wipes dark red hair out of her face.

Valentina grunts. “This fucking barstool can take me at this point. Fuck. Why even is tequila?”

“No, I mean, I can totally take you dude. Like, in the city arena,” Lannie insists. “It’ll be fun. I know the arena, so that cancels out all the benefits you get from…” She gestures at Valentina, who looks down at herself.

“…From wearing a shirt? I’m pretty sure I get no benefits from wearing a shirt.”

“Ugh, no, from being you, with all your championniness. The benefits that come with being ‘Valentina Marin, champion of destiny’!” Lannie gestures wildly as she speaks. Her drink sloshes dangerously in her hand.

Valentina narrows her eyes at the other woman. “Are you mocking me? Is this your mocking face? I can’t tell, because it’s so close to being your ‘going to lose’ face.”

That’s how they find themselves outside of Kristian Kardusen’s apartment building two hours and multiple drinks later, ready to bash down his door if he doesn’t give them the keys to his kingdom, or at least the arena. Luckily he seems more than willing to cooperate after seeing who is at his door.

“Woah, he’s a pushover,” Val says, leaning heavily on Lannie, “I didn’t even have to offer to suck his dick in exchange for the keys. How am I supposed to get my wild and irresponsible side on when everyone’s all… honorable?”

“Awe, poor baby. He won’t say no to a blowjob from you though… he’s totally got a boner for you,” Lannie laughs, “although it may just be a boner for the publicity he’s going to milk out of the footage he’s going to get tonight.”

“You’ve got a filthy mouth, you know that right?” Valentina frowns at the door, wondering why Kris is taking forever to get dressed. Of course that’s when Kris bursts out of his apartment building, just in time to see Lannie shove Valentina off her shoulder and send her sprawling on the street.



Less than half an hour later the three of them are standing in the dressing rooms of Kardusen City Arena. Both Lannie and Valentina are geared up in their sensors. Lannie glows white, Valentina glows gold. Whenever either of them is hit, they’ll flare up red. A hit will make them glow green, just to communicate how well they’re doing to people who might be looking up from above. Lannie has done this a million times before. The Kardusen City Arena has been her favourite the moment she set foot in here six years before. Kristian was one of her first real sales as an ammo sales person, and over the years he’s not only proven a loyal client, but he has been an awesome friend as well.

He’s the one who’s gotten first Walter and then Lannie their sponsor contracts with David Vermeer, but he has also always been there with booze, consolation and good advise throughout all of their problems over the years. After Walter got himself shot in boot camp, Kristian was one of the first to visit him in the hospital. He’d held Lannie tightly as she sobbed against his chest in the hospital room. He was the first person she came to when she needed to talk about someone about joining the Rookie League. he let her train for free for the League when she could not afford the admission fee. And through it all; he’s never even once told her /I told you so/. Well, he did say that once; when she won the Rookie World League championship. Then he did tell her /I told you so/.

“You’re such a great friend, Kris,” Lannie tells him earnestly as he stands before her and gives her sensors a last quick checkover with his handheld.

He smiles at her. “You’re drunk.”

“Drunk people tell the truth,” she laughs and gives him a spontaneous kiss on the cheek.

“Does Walter even know you’re here?”

She laughs. “Yeah. He has nightshift. He says hi and he told me to have fun and to own Valentina’s arse.”

Valentina, sitting on the bench next to them to tie her shoe strings, snorts. “Dream on, fucking hopeful.”

Lannie looks back and grins brightly at her new friend. “This arena, though… welcome to my backyard, bitch.” She laughs lightly, though, to show that she means no harm with her shit-talking.

“Oooh, now it’s on,” Valentina says, standing up and steadying herself for just a heartbeat. “I’ll own your ass extra hard for that one.”

“Ladies, ladies, save it for the Arena please,” Kris says. “I’ve got you two all ready for your match. Your sensors are all in working order. It’s going to be instagib, non-lethal. You play for two out of three; kills and moves in this match will count for your overall tournament stats, Lannie. Valentina, I can make you an account if you like.”

Lannie shakes her head. “Make this one off the record, Kris. You have our permission to tape the shit out of it, but I don’t want this going to my overall stats.”

Valentina laughs and pokes Lannie in her side. “Afraid I’ll beat you too badly?”

“Those last two tequilas might have been a terrible idea. I’ve never done a drunk match on the record, I’m not about to start right now.”

“Same,” Valentina nods. “I don’t want the Corporation looking over my shoulder.”

Kristian nods and makes a few swiping motions on his handheld. “Off the record, as you please, ladies. Well then. If you’re ready… the arena is waiting for you. I’ve put the timer on five minutes. Valentina, you have the north entrance. Lannie, you’ve got south. Have fun!”

“We will, thanks!” Lannie kisses her instagib rifle as a salute to Kris and then turns to grin brightly at Valentina: “Here we go then. I’m sure those red sensors will look good on you.”


The strobe-lights alone are enough to give Valentina a headache. She turns left again, her footsteps swift and silent along the concrete floor. She’s smooth, but nowhere near as smooth as she would have been, many shots of tequila ago. Still, she has fought deathmatches while hopped off her mind on stimms, and those had far higher stakes. Like death. This is just a matter of pride.

“Bitch is going down,” Valentina softly sings to herself as she rounds another corner. She can hear movement on the other side of the arena, but she can’t see Lannie yet. It’s only a matter of time though. Lannie might know the arena better, but Valentina knows Lannie by now. It’s not hard to figure out how she wants to use her knowledge of the arena to her benefit.

She runs down a few corridors, confident that Lannie is still on the south end of the arena. The blacklight shines off her sensors, making her a prime target. “Fake-ass shit,” she grumbles, ducking around a corner and pressing her back to a wall. “Dumbass kids games. How they expect these kids to survive in an actual arena is beyond me.”

She falls silent when she hears Lannie’s footsteps approach her from the west side of the arena. She isn’t quite running, but she’s close to it. Her breathing sounds loud in the arena, probably worse so than it would if she had been sober. Valentina is sure she wouldn’t have heard her if she had been moving herself. As it is, she’s sitting motionless, crouching against the back wall in a dead end of the maze. The tension in her thighs makes her legs shake slightly, but her hands are steady.

Lannie rounds the corner, nowhere near as cautious as she should have been. She glances over the dead end, her eyes skimming over the darkened corner where Valentina is crouched. She takes another step, moving into view, and Valentina can see the moment her brain tells her something is off. She stumbles, and Valentina pulls the trigger twice, hearing the satisfying humm of the blanks. Lannie’s armor flares up red just as Valentina’s shines green. It’s a perfect hit.

“Gotcha!” Valentina shouts, laughing as she sprints past Lannie into the arena.


“Bitch!” Lannie hollers after the Northern League Champion, as the other woman sprints away past her. She’s unable to shoot for the next five seconds anyway. While her sensors are flaring red, her gun won’t fire. Valentina doesn’t deign to respond, intent on making her way out of here.

Lannie’s anger at herself doesn’t allow it, though. Her legs feel like they’ve been filled with concrete and her heartrate is much higher than it has any right to be in the City Arena, but that’s all alcohol. She just needs to be smarter. Valentina has a drink or two on her, she should be able to outsmart the other woman. /Heh, outsmarting a six time League winner, have fun with that,/ a cynical part of her mind mutters, but she pushes the thought away in favour of focus. Valentina might be a champion, but Lannie is a champion as well. And even though the world might smirk at the danger of a Rookie League, they’re failing to see the thrill there is in non-lethal fights – the risk taking, the attitude, the sheer thrill and fun of it… that is something that the actual Arena just does not have. Ever. It takes itself too seriously.

So Lannie takes a deep breath and follows Valentina through the maze. Valentina ducks almost randomly into corners, hides, listens. Lannie stalks her, her beathing shallow and sharp in her chest. Still, she’s learned her lesson. At some point she’s pretty sure that Valentina has holed herself up behind some pillar; ready to shoot, ready to take out Lannie once again.

Lannie’s not planning to flare red once again. So she strategises. If Valentina’s behind that pillar, then she could try to circle around and take her competitor from behind once again – only the other woman has already proven to see that coming. The only other option would be to try to get close and then just charge in.

This is not a death match, this is a City Arena. There are no losses, there is no death. And Lannie has nothing to lose anyway (except for, well, her pride – but if she looks deep in her heart she’s always known that if she goes up against Valentina Marin, she’ll lose). And that’s fine. But she won’t go down without a fight, dammit.

She creeps by slowly, stalking. The lights are blinding; the strobo is annoying as hell. It always has been, but she knows just how to cock her head so the lights won’t bother her as much. Valentina is quiet behind her pillar as if she isn’t even there. Still, the way the light glows off the painted parts of the wall is all wrong. Lannie knows this fucking place like the back of her hand. Someone’s definitely there.

Creep, creep. Slowly then. She takes a deep breath. Counts. Checks the lights and the glow again.

One. Two. Three.

She jumps.

Cocks her gun, mid-jump.

It’s almost easy to aim and pull that trigger. Valentina’s lightning fast with her response, but in the City Arena, your shot is negated when you’re hit. If these would have been real bullets, Valentina would have nailed Lannie in the face as much as she would have taken two to the chest.

In the City Arena, Valentina’s sensors only flare red and Lannie is laughing. “Got you! Damn, that was fun.”


It takes a lot of effort not to scream when Lannie leaps out from the shadows and hits her, Valentina’s own gun useless in her fingers as her shot is blocked by the system. “Motherfucker!” she shouts, “Motherfucking fake ass system! Just let me shoot!”

She can hear Lannie laughing as she sprints away from the scene of the crime. The tinny voice in her armor tells her she has three seconds to go before her gun becomes useful again. “I’m going to fucking kill you,” Valentina growls. She can hear Lannie in the distance, her breathing interspaced with giggles.

Despite the frustrations that come with the non-lethal weaponry and the continuous flashing lights of the city arena, Valentina finds herself grinning. Lannie is good. She’d known as much already, of course, from watching her Rookie League matches. It’s different to see her in action now, even though she is drunk as a skunk. Her hands had been steady when she jumped Valentina earlier.

“Reckless…” Valentina mutters. Maybe that’s the answer to winning in the city arena. No matter what stunt she pulls, she’s not going to die if she makes a mistake. Her feet are moving before she’s even made the conscious decision to chase Lannie. She stalks after the other woman, cautious to stay out of her line of fire.

“Come to mama, little duck,” she sings as she takes cover behind a wall. The arena around her lights up brightly as Lannie takes a shot, hitting the wall where Valentina had been seconds ago.

“Shut up!” Lannie laughs, laying fake fire down in Valentina’s general direction. It stops her progress forward, and she knows she won’t be able to circle around to surprise Lannie now. She’s just a wall away, and they have the makings of a stand-off.

“God damn it,” Val mutters. Lannie has the upper hand again, with her knowledge of the arena.

“I’m gonna get you!” Lannie shouts over the wall, firing another few shots in Valentina’s direction. “You’re going to be so red when I’m done with you!”

“I’ll show you red,” Valentina says, looking up at the wall she’s hiding against. It’s too high to scale in one go, with too little distance between the walls to get enough speed. She huffs and stares angrily at the opposite wall, wishing it was further back. It’s slightly lower than the wall she needs to scale.

“Huh. I guess I could…” she muses, looking between the two walls. All she needs to do to beat Lannie is get over the wall. “Well… fortune favors the bold.”

Again her feet are moving before she’s really made up her mind. In two steps she’s at the opposing wall, leaping up high. Her right foot connects perfectly, and she levers herself up. Her left foot slips slightly, but by that time she already has her hand on the edge, and she can pull herself up easily. From there on it’s easy as pie to turn around and leap onto the other wall. Lannie will never see her coming.

She feels the error of her ways the second the pushes off the wall. She’s going to overshoot. “Oh shiiiiiit!” she shouts just as she’s sailing over the wall. Lannie looks up at her wide-eyed as she comes tumbling down, hitting the concrete hard at her feet. A sharp pain shoots up in her ankle.

“Oh my God!” Lannie exclaims, dropping down on her knees next to Val. “Are you insane? Are you okay? What the fuck was that?”

Valentina pulls herself upright, groaning softly. “Fuuuuck… that was stupid. I sprained something.”

“Yeah, your brain, dumbass. Why would you do that?” Lannie still looks wide-eyed. Valentina looks down at the gun in her hand.

“Huh,” she utters, pulling the trigger. Lannie’s armor lights up red again. “Gotcha…”



“Are you sure you don’t want to visit the med center?” Kristian asks for the third time, while he programs his pod to take the ladies home. “Any other help?”

Valentina shakes her head. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to sue your Arena or anything. I was the one who thought it was a good idea to scale that wall. I just sprained something. It hurts like a bitch, but I’ll be fine.”

“You deserve that pain,” Lannie grouches. She’s suckling on a water infusion in her mouth. “Fucking cheater.”

“Are you still on about that? You were the one who dropped your guard.”

“I thought you were in pain!”

“Lesson number one: never trust your competitor in the arena. They’ll kill your ass for it.”

“My poor pretty arse! It’s an outrage!”

Kristian listens to their banter and smiles as he uploads the coordinates to the homes of both ladies. He’s suprised when he finds out that Valentina actually is a neighbour of his business contact David Vermeer, but doesn’t comment on it. In his head he’s already busy uploading the hilarious yet exciting footage material to the feeds. It hardly needs any editing; the software has beautifully taken all the best angles while shooting the footage, and the fight itself has been full of energy and excitement. Over the years he’s seen a lot of happy people taking the piss out of each other while stalking one another through his Arena, but this might be one of his favourite fights.

It takes him back to one of Lannie’s other fights in his Arena; the one she had with her boyfriend. The one that landed Walter Lane the Vermeer contract and got him into bootcamp. What should have taken him into the League, had fate not intervened. That’s where Lannie’s career had started. It made sense to end her victory streak with her taking on the Northern League champion in a friendly match. No one better to lose from.

“All aboard, ladies. My pod will take you home.”

“Aren’t you coming with us?” Lannie asks. She takes his hand and squeezes it softly. “I can offer you a drink for all of your hard work tonight. It’s the least I can do, I owe you big time.”

“It’s fine, Lannie. I’m off to find my bed. Long day tomorrow.”

“What did you think of the match, then?” she asks, blue eyes gleaming with the remnants of excitement, adrenaline and alcohol.

The answer is out of his mouth before he knows it. “You two were glorious. You were a joy to watch, and anyone who watches it will agree.”

“They’ll undoubtedly clamour for a real Arena match at some point,” Lannie muses, watching as Valentina makes herself comfortable in the pod.

Valentina shrugs as she sits down, trying not to set any weight on her painful ankle. “They can clamour all they want. It’ll never happen.”

Kristian looks at the two young women in his pod and smiles as the pod boots up and the door closes. “Maybe for the best. Well, good night ladies. Be sure to take your water infusions before going to sleep, or the hangover will be a bitch.”

“Yes, daddy,” Lannie says sweetly through the open window, as if she’s much younger than her years. Both women crack up with laughter as the pod takes off.

Kristian watches them go, until the green-yellow light underneath his pod has joined with the myriads of other podlights in the night red sky.


2293: Red Moon

Posted: February 22, 2014 by Kelly in Uncategorized

Despite the late hour, Dudev picks up on the fourth ring. His face appears in Irina’s screen, oddly pale and white in the light of his comm device. As if he’s already dead. “What do you want?” he asks roughly. He looks disheveled, dark hair tousled and eyes still bloodshot with sleep.

Irina smiles faintly at him through her plasma screen. She leans back in her workstation chair, eyes briefly wandering to a russet moonrise that is visible from the window of her office. “Just wanted to have a little chat.”

“At four in the bloody morning? Fuck, you’re insane. What the fuck you do want?”

/Someone is grumpy in the mornings, apparently. Guess I caught him at the right moment./ “I heard you were talking shit about me,” she coins an old saying. She smiles again, only a little bit, to show that she’s only being half ironic. “I thought it was high time you and I had a chat.”

Solchov’s old associate rubs over his face and reaches away from the camera to grab a glass of water. He drinks it while watching her. His hazel eyes are bold and challenging, despite being blood shot. “What of it? I don’t owe you anything.”

“Apart from the six million credits you mean?”

“I don’t owe them to you. I owed them to Solchov. You do know he’s dead, don’t you? Well, you must know, otherwise you wouldn’t be strutting around in his feathers, acting like you own the place.”

Irina leans back in her chair and sighs. “This thing again? Dudev, you owe that money to Solchov’s corporation. I own the corporation. I really need you to pay off soon. My patience is running out.”

Dudev’s voice lowers dangerously. He narrows his eyes and the camera shifts a bit, showing him in his bedroom. A flash of a woman sleeping next to him. “I won’t pay you anything. You’re just Solchov’s whore, not his CEO.”

/And there it is. Well, at least he’s not beating around the bush. He’s honest, I’ll give him that./

“Yeah, that was the reason I called. As much as you need to pay that money, you also really need to stop calling me that. It’s been half a year. You are boring me.”

The past six months have been filled with scrambling around to get Solchov’s empire under control. The financial takeover was arranged easily enough – she had been planning to do so for three years by that point. The nasty part of it was getting the Black City to accept her as the new boss of things. She had hoped that they’d seen enough of her face and her publicly running most of Solchov’s show over the years that they would accept her, but many of Solchov’s old contacts have been testing her patience. And in some cases, she /needs/ them. It’s taken a lot of pushing, bribing and threatening, but they listen to her now. All of them, except for Dudev. He /keeps/ calling her Solchov’s whore and his bile is infecting others. It would be infuriating if Irina would still care personally about what people call her. It’s just the principle of the matter, though. Name-calling is just a symptom of lack of respect and she /needs/ that.

He smiles then, a slow, leering ‘fuck you’ smile that she knows so well from him. She’s seen enough of it over the years. “And what if I don’t?”

“This was your last warning,” Irina says. There’s a message flashing in the left underside of her screen. Gershan. Apparently everything is in order. He’s ready. /Perfect/. “Are you going to accept this new reality?”

Dudev barks out a laugh and holds his comm closer so his face fills up the screen. The leer turns into a sneer, and she knows what he’s going to do. “Whore,” he says.

Irina gives him a brilliant smile in return. “I was hoping you’d say that.” Her hand caresses her screen, sending out a message to Gershan that he can go ahead.

Dudev is confused. She can see it on his face, one brief moment of speechlessness because he had never expected her to say this. He should have. He definitely should know what’s coming now, too. He should be taking precautions. He has known how Solchov treated his enemies – and Irina’s been on the operative side of Solchov’s affairs for years. She learned from the best.

One moment she wonders if perhaps he hasn’t set up a counter move, hired extra security, been fooling her intel that he’s sleeping in his own bed tonight, but the next moment the door blows open and in that split second before the camera view topples to show her the ceiling, she sees a very familiar face smile at Dudev before the man is slugged unceremoniously in the face. Gershan.

The man groans and she hears the sounds of a struggle and Dudev’s grunts, before the man groans in pain. More struggles follow. She thinks she can hear Gershan chuckle at some point, but it’s hard to make out over Dudev’s curses.

Irina waits and watches the ceiling patiently. She’s sent him on so many missions and while he’s always backed up by a team and doesn’t leave anything to chance, he still prefers to be the one to actually take point. He wants to be the one to actually land the punches. She’s not sure whether it’s because he’s just that violent, or because he hates these people so much. She won’t ask and he won’t tell, and it doesn’t really matter anyhow. Gershan’s got this. He always does.

It doesn’t take long. Eventually the camera rights itself again, and Gershan grins at her. She cannot help smiling back at him. “All done,” he reports brightly, “now what do you want me to do with him?” He angles the camera at Dudev, who is now tied to a chair, gagged and all. He’s only wearing a white t-shirt and boxer shorts. In his underwear, tied up and gagged, he looks incredibly harmless.

She smiles again, a slow smile. This one is brilliant nor happy. “You can take the gag out. I think I would like to hear him scream.”

Dudev starts in his chair, sitting upright and tugging at where his wrists are tied to the armrests. The zipties aren’t budging; they’re just visibly cutting his flesh. He is sweating profusely, but he doesn’t struggle as Gershan yanks the gag out of his mouth. The man sits still, straight up. “What- what are you going to do?”

Irina shrugs slowly. “I think I want you to just call me Irina. Or better even, Ms Weisz. You know, that respect thing we talked about? Can you do that?”

He is defiance personified as he nearly spits out his reply: “Can, yes. Will, no.”

/Of course./ She nods. “Gershan, please motivate him.”

She hardly even sees Gershan move. It’s Dudev’s strangled cry when Gershan’s knife buries itself in his gut that alerts her that it’s already happened. “That looks nasty,” she comments, as she watches blood drench Dudev’s white shirt and seep onto the hardwood floor.

“I didn’t hit anything vital,” Gershan says dispassionately. “It just hurts like a bitch. I could go at it again, if you want, hit his intestines this time.”

“I don’t know,” Irina answers, as if she and Gershan haven’t done this countless times before. As if it’s the first time they have a conversation like this. “Dudev, do I want that?”

“Probably,” the man says. He spits at the floor, still showing defiance. “Do you like your little power play, you stupid whore? Do you really think this means anything?”

She smiles at him. “I don’t know, I could do this all night. Gershan too, right? Gut wounds take forever to bleed out. Gershan, if you would…?”

Gershan flashes a grin at her and pushes Dudev against his chair, trailing the knife over the man’s belly. Gershan tugs the blood-soaked t-shirt up, exposing pasty and bloody skin. “I’m going to puncture your intestine. This will probably hurt a lot.”

“Fuck you,” Dudev grumbles and moves to spit Gershan in the face, but the knife buries itself in his gut before he can finish his action. It slashes deep, so deep. From Dudev’s cry it is obvious Gershan’s hit something vital. Dark red blood gushes over his gloved hands as he pulls his knife back.

“We could do this for hours,” Irina tells Dudev softly. “It’ll take you a long time to die this way. Unless you just call me by my name. It’s not that hard. Just say my name, call me Ms Weisz, and we might let you live with the scars. If you get to a med center before dawn, you can survive this. Do you want to?”

Pain and defiance battle openly for dominance in Dudev’s expression, and pain seems to be gaining ground. There’s a bit of desperation there, too. This is a man who knows he’s outgunned and who doesn’t want to die. He doesn’t have a backup plan or a way out, and it begins to dawn on him that this may be it – he might be in for a torture session that lasts for hours.

His resolve weakens. Irina can see it clearly on his face as she waits so patiently for him to find words to answer. When it finally comes, it’s hardly more than a hoarse whisper. “Yes, ms Weisz.”

“Oh, that sounded nice,” Irina says, her voice intentionally lighter, more girlish. “Can you say it again?”

As Dudev quickly complies, she can see Gershan shake with silent laughter as he shoots her a message. Her feed glows up with his words. /That was easy. He’s as weak as his security guys./

“Thank you, Dudev. That’s music to my ears. Now, one of my people has set up your accounts to wire me the money. I need your iris scan to send me the money. Will you do that for me, too?”

He nods. “Of course, ms Weisz.” He doesn’t struggle. He just complies; stupidly hoping that this might save his life. Why does he even harbour hope? Doesn’t he know who she is and what she is capable of? How did this incompetent get so high up in the Black City food chain?

“Oh, Dudev. If only you’d done that from the fucking beginning. Now it’s too late.”

“….What? You said-…”

“Oh, shush now. I’m trying to think of the shittiest way to die. Gershan, any thoughts?”

Gershan leans against the wall behind Dudev and grins his slow, bright grin, that would warm any girl’s heart if he hadn’t had the eyes of a killer. “I could stab him some more. As you said, it takes hours to die from a gut wound. Supposed to be excruciating.”

“Hmm,” Irina muses, as if she and Gershan haven’t settled on this a long time ago. As if Yevgeny isn’t already dousing the house with gasoline and taking out the emergency sprinklers. “Oh, I know. I think we’ll go for fire this time. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

“Not since Pajari last year,” Gershan nods. “He took quite a while to die.”

“That’s nice. A pretty prelude to hell, too. Fire it is, then.”

The look on Dudev’s face is priceless. To his credit, the man doesn’t beg. His face has gone deathly pale and he is sweating, but he’s staring bloody murder at the camera. At her face. If looks could kill, she would be the one dying, not him. He doesn’t say anything anymore. Not when Yevgeny starts to splatter the contents of a jerrycan of gasoline through the room, and not even when Gershan takes the jerrycan and douses the last remnants of it over Dudev’s head. The man splutters for breath for a moment, but he doesn’t beg for his life. He just sits there, soaking in gasoline and blood, glowering. Hating her.

“Light her up, Gershan,” Irina says almost gently.

“I’m not going to scream for you, whore,” Dudev growls then, tugging in vein at his bonds in newly retrieved defiance. They bite in his skin and make him bleed; new red blood joins the blood-and-gasoline mixture on the floor.

She laughs softly. “Oh, you will. They all do.”

A minute later, Dudev is screaming as the flames reach his feet, crackle the skin, burn his flesh.
Irina watches him, dispassionately wondering what will die first; the uplink connection that shows her the images, or Dudev.

It turns out to be Dudev.

She watches the image feed anyway, until the connection is broken.