Archive for October, 2012

2307: Connections Are More Dangerous Than Lies

Posted: October 31, 2012 by Kelly in league, stories

(written by Brenda)

Connections are more dangerous than lies

“And you’re absolutely sure you want to do this all by yourself?” Stender asks for the hundredth time.

Young smirks at him. “Yes, I’m sure. No, I don’t want your help in this. Yes, I’m aware of your overwhelming charisma. No, I don’t need it today. You’ve got people skills, I’ve got leverage.” He turns to his mentor and offers him a quick pat on the back. “I’ve got this, boss.” Stender’s eyes flit around the room as if he’s looking for another excuse, another reason why this project should be taken out of Young’s hands. “And I’m not taking Berntsson either.” Young heads him off at the pass. He can practically hear Berntsson sulk in the corner of the boardroom.

“Alright, I see you have everything under control.” Stender says, his voice flat. Young laughs at him, a little cruelly. The day Stender believed that everything was under control would he the day the world ended. “The jet is ready. Try to have it home by midnight.”

Young resists the urge to pump his fist in the air. It feels like a first victory though, convincing Stender to let him handle this project on his own. “One down, thirteen to go.” He feels pretty good about his odds of getting at least ten of those in. Eleven, if he plays his cards right. He intends to. The groundwork has been laid down. All he needs to do now is score. His hand hovers over his earpiece for a second, activating his connection.

“Alright Rory, lets get this show on the road.” First stop, the home territory.

Compound, Stateside – Bijou Sanchéz

The woman sitting across from him looks nothing like Hugh. Tall, blonde and beautiful in an entirely artificial kind of way. ‘Killbot Spectaculaire’, Rory had dubbed her. Now that he was face to face with her Young has to struggle to keep all the nicknames to himself. This is Hugh’s cousin, after all, and he probably wants her to be treated with a modicum of respect. The way he treats his own women. /Hah./

“So really, Miss Sanchéz, as you can see the premise is quite simple, and the pay-out is spectacular.” He brushes his hands over the lapels of his expensive suit. Bijou’s eyes follow the movement. “All you have to do is sign on the dotted line, and your path to fame and fortune lies before you.”

Bijou bites on her full lips, the stylus swishing back and forth between her long fingers. “You’re absolutely sure she’s going to be there too? Because I want pay-back for what that bitch did.” Her voice grates on his nerves, as it’s done all meeting. He’ll sit through it though. Anything to get what he wants, and what he wants is to get Bijou Sanchéz to sign up for the World League.

“She’ll be there.” he says with the absolute certainty of a man who knows he has exactly the right tools for the job. “All she needs to do is sign on the dotted line as well.”

Bijou beams at him. Everything about her is radiant. She’ll do good on the live-feed, he can tell already. The stylus makes a soft tapping noise on the screen before her as she signs the agreement that will lock her in the world league deathmatch. “Nice one, boss.” Rory whispers in his ear. Young permits himself a charming smile at miss Sanchéz.

“Very nice.” He says. “Very nice indeed.”

MIT, Stateside – Forest Wilson

“So I sign right here?” Forest Wilson says less than half an hour later, sitting in an abandoned MIT classroom. In Young’s ear Rory goes on and on about how all that curly hair will drive the fans wild. Young would snap at him and tell him Forest isn’t recruited for his good looks, but he knows his assistant is messing with him.

Young nods and smiles at Forest, who puts stylus to pad and scribbles down his name, signing on to the world league competition. Young flexes his hands, suddenly uncomfortable in his pristine suit. Forest babbles on while he shakes his hand. “Your heartrate is through the roof, boss.” Rory comments while Forest lets him out of the building. The jet looms ominously on the runway.

“I might be a little nervous.” he confesses, rubbing his sweaty palms on his pants.

“Well, yeah. You’re going to meet the man himself in person. I’d probably piss myself if I were in your shoes.” Rory offers. It’s not much of a consolation.

San Angeles, Stateside – General Halver

“Welcome to San Quentin, Mister Young. We are very excited to have you here.” The warden is a lean, wiry man with skin like leather. He looks like he eats people like Young for breakfast. It’s a good look for the man who lords over some of the most dangerous criminals in the world. “The State has a no hostage policy.” The warden continues. “In the unlikely event that you are taken hostage, the State will not negotiate for your release in exchange for the release of an inmate.”

He pauses for a second, and Young nods in understanding. The warden seems satisfied. “Very well, Mister Young. Please sign here, and we’ll lead you inside. We’ve cordoned off the visiting area for you and General Halver. You have thirty minutes with him, before he goes back to his cell no matter what the outcome of your discussion.” Again his voice is hard, leaving no room for misunderstandings or negotiation. Young nods, his hands no longer clammy with sweat.

For the first time since his arrival the warden cracks a smile. “I’ve got to say, Mister Young, the news that you were coming here in person stirred the masses here somewhat. The General has been looking forward to this for weeks. We’re all hoping that the rumors are true, of course. Christ, it would be about time, wouldn’t it, for that bastard to meet his end. And who better to provide it than General Halver himself?”

Young smiles minutely, just a quirk of the mouth. “I suggest you watch the League announcements tomorrow, warden. You won’t be disappointed.”

There’s a bounce in the warden’s step when he leads him into the maximum security prison. They pass several cells, none of which are empty, but the hallway is silent save for their footsteps anyway, and the occasional hushed whisper. It’s an alien feeling. Young knows his face is know, although obviously not as known as Stender’s or Berntsson’s, but it feels like every single set of eyes on him knows exactly who he is, and what he does. They all know what he’s here to do, at least, as does the man waiting for him in the visiting area.

General Halver is an imposing man, even though he’s sitting down in one of the plastic chairs. Young is neither short nor slight, but he figures he weighs about half as much as the General. He’s also half his age, but although the other man’s hair has gone white years ago, he looks as lean and hungry as any man half his age. “Ah, Mister Young.” he smiles when he says it. “I’d get up to greet, you, but…” he raises his hands, showing off an impressive set of handcuffs and chains that keep him in place.

“No worries, General. That just means we can skip the boring part. Also, I’d shake your hand, but I was told that you strangled the last federal prosecutor who tries that.” Young quips, taking the seat opposite to Halver.

“Ah, but you’re no prosecutor, are you?” the General smiles, looking for all the world like he wasn’t rotting away in solitary confinement most of his days. “In fact, from where I’m sitting you look like a man who’s going to get me out of this place.”

Young’s lips quirk again. “If you wanted out you could have taken any of the deals offered by the State. You’ve been offered your freedom more than once since you were sent here.” Young leans forward, resting his elbows on the table. “But I suppose freedom is mundane compared to what I’ve come to offer.”

Halver’s entire body tenses for a moment, before he seems to deflate. For the first time since Young laid eyes on him, he doesn’t look like he’s ready to kill everyone in a mile radius. “Revenge.” Halver says. “You’ve come to offer me revenge.”

Young leans back, smiling. “Precisely that.”

“It’s certain then? You’ve found him? He’s in?” Halver is the one to lean forward now, hanging on Young’s every word.

“Yes to all three. Transport will be arranged later today. We’re putting him away somewhere safe, to make sure nothing happens to him between now and the match. You realize the match will take some time to set up, right? I’m offering revenge, but you have to understand that I’m not offering it today or tomorrow. It might be months.” He places the pad in front of Halver, with the stylus on top.

The General can barely reach the pad, locked up as he is, but he puts his signature down all the same. “What’s a few more months on a lifetime?” he asks, smiling now. His eyes shine brightly. Young reaches for the pad, now with the signature of one General Halver, war hero and war criminal all in one.

Halver’s fingers close around his wrist. Young tenses, absolutely sure for a moment that he’ll end up with a broken arm or worse. Seconds pass. He looks up at the other man, and finds his eyes strangely soft. “Thank you, Mister Young. You have no idea how much this means to me.”

Young slowly liberates his wrist from Halver’s grasp. “We’ve all lost people in the war, General. This isn’t about justice for our side, or theirs. This is about revenge. Billions of people will be watching you, praying that you’ll give them just a sliver of it.”

Halver grins. “Well, I’d hate to disappoint. It will be glorious, Mister Young, I promise you that.”

“Good.” Young says, giving Halver a short nod before walking out of the visiting area. His hands are clenched tight around the pad to keep them from shaking.

San Angeles, Stateside – Adam Mahler

The warden gives him his pad back. His mouth is twisted in an angry, disgusted scowl. “He signed.”

Young glances down and sees the suspicious looking fingerprint on the pad. “Right.” He’s going to have to get this thing sanitized.

“I’ve gotta say, Young, I don’t understand why you’d want a disgusting son of a bitch like this in the same match as General Halver.” The warden is still scowling. The two other guards that accompanied him look a little traumatized.

“It’s a demographic thing.” Young says, sounding far calmer than he feels. “We want to reach as many people as possible, and you can’t tell me you wouldn’t watch a match where this stain on society gets killed. Every single one of our other competitors will want to wipe him off the face of the earth.”

The warden grunts. “You may have a point there. I’m just glad he’ll be out of my hair. Disgusting…”

Cidade, South America – Ruiz da Costa

“How long until this thing lands?” Young asks the pilot, who looks at a few screen and holds up three fingers. Young frowns for a moment before wandering back into the jet. Just enough time to change into a lighter suit, if he hurries. Cidade is still smouldering although the sun has set over an hour ago. The trial of getting Adam Mahler to sign had cost him a little more time than he’d hoped, but he’ll make it up somewhere.

He struggles with a different tie for a moment, one matching with his lighter suit, before giving up. “Ruiz isn’t going to give a shit, is he?”

“Not at all.” Rory answers him. “You might as well get comfortable, there’s no need to wear a tie for the next two stops. Neither one of them will care.”

The jet sets down on the landing strip with a jolt. As he looks out the window he sees countless reporters waiting on the pavement. “Jesus. News travels fast.”

Rory makes a dismayed sound in his ear. “Someone talked. I’ll look into it if you want.”

“Don’t bother.” Young says, smiling in the direction of the on-board camera, knowing his assistant would be able to see it. “It’ll be Bijou, or her darling uncle Hugh. They probably called ahead to Ruiz to let him know we were coming.” His comm pings in his pocket. A glance at the screen brings a smile to his face. “But at least that means we won’t have to go very far this time. Ruiz is waiting in the airport lounge.”

“What, really?” Rory sounds like a kid at Christmastime. “That’s so cool. He actually came out to meet you?”

Young smirks. “No, I’m pretty sure he came out for some quality facetime with the press. Hugh probably told him to do it. Someone’s campaigning hard for their champion to become a fan favorite. I’m surprised Hugh hasn’t approached you yet. He loved the work you did on Lannie’s rookie league victories.”

“Who says he hasn’t?” Rory counters, sounding cheeky. “But I told him I’d be too busy for a while. I think I used the worlds ‘Young is riding me hard’, actually.”

Young barks out a laugh. “Oh man, I would’ve liked to see his face when you said that.” He shakes his head as he steps off the jet, onto the pavement. The reporters are already snapping pictures of him. They’ll get a lot of cheerful pictures, if the meeting goes well.

“You’re lucky I anticipate all your needs. I actually taped it. It’s going to be a part of my masterpiece. I call it ‘the many frowny faces of Huey.’ It’ll be a hit, I’m sure.” Young can’t stop smiling.

“I’m sure it will be. Ah, look who’s there, right on schedule?” Two of the reporters get shoved to the side as Ruiz comes barrelling onto the airstrip.

“Young! my man!” Before he really knows what’s going on Ruiz has his arms wrapped around him in a crushing hug, the same kind he’d seen him give to Hugh. “It’s good to see you, buddy. Now where the fuck do I sign?”

Ruiz releases him from the somewhat uncomfortable embrace and holds him at armlength. His smile is predatory, wide, eager. Young pulls the pad out of his briefcase. “Dotted line, my friend, but only if you’re absolutely sure. This is a fixed contract. You back out, I sue you so hard you’ll wish you’d never been born. We’re not fucking around here. This is the World League.”

“Hey, fuck you man. Do I look like the kind of pussy who’s going to back out? Besides, this is the big one. The one we’ve all been waiting for. I wouldn’t miss this even if I was crippled and ninety percent dead. Now give me that fucking pad before I break you.” he grins at Young. Young grins back at him. He’s pretty sure the journalists have picked up every single word that was just said. Free press. Gotta love it.

He holds the pad up for Ruiz, who doesn’t bother reading the fine print and just scribbles his name, before pressing his thumb on the screen to transfer his fingerprint. “That all you need?” he asks, quietly now. Showtime is over, after all. Good old, reliable Ruiz.

Young nods. “That will be all, Ruiz. Just keep an eye on the news. We’ll go public with this as soon as I have the last signature. Hopefully within the next forty hours, give or take a few.”

“Who’s your last stop? Valentina?” Ruiz’ voice is barely audible now, and his back is to the journalist. Apparently this is one secret that he wants to keep between them. Young nods, barely perceptible. When he looks up at Ruiz he sees the other man’s eyes are wide open. “Fuuuuck. Well, good luck with that man.”

Young shakes Ruiz’ hand and smiles. “I’m going to need it, I’m sure.”

They exchange a few more pleasantries, but Young is antsy now, ready to continue his mission. The jet will take almost an hour to get to New Zealand. He has seven more stops to make before he’ll approach Valentina, and he’s no closer to figuring out how to handle that than he was when she left the compound all those months ago.

Wainui, New Zealand – Riley Jones

“Mister Jones!” Young can’t help but grin when he sees the blonde man waving at him as soon as he spots him. There’s something infinitely likable about Riley Jones. As Rory said on the podride over, he was like a male Lannie, except without the gambling addiction.

“Welcome to Wainui, mister Young.” Riley says while he grabs Young’s hand, giving it an enthusiastic shake. “Come on, I’ll show you the farm.”

And so Young finds himself walking around the green pastures that Riley had purchased with his earnings from his Asia League victory. Not many people had had faith in the man. As he gestures wildly, pointing out all the glorious details of his farm, Young can see why. There’s something almost naive about him, a kind of inherent friendliness that has no place in the league. Of course, he’d shown everyone wrong. The man was an artist with a flack canon.

They end the your on Riley’s back porch. The sun is high above the horizon, and the farm looks out over the bay. Riley’s wife is inside, six months pregnant and glowing with it. Young takes the beer he’s offered and gives himself a few minutes to enjoy the view. It feels like the war never touched the ground here. Everything is unspoiled. Next to him Riley smiles contentedly, his eyes on the rare breed of highland cows that he’s keeping.

“I really appreciate you coming down here in person, mate.” Riley starts, sounding a little hesitant. Young likes him, so he doesn’t leave him hanging for long.

“But you’re not going to change your mind about the World League.” He finishes Riley’s sentence. The other man shakes his head.

“I promised Leah. One season, just enough to pay off this place. She’d kick my arse if I signed up again. And lets face it, I was alright, but I’m no Ruiz, mate. I’d be dead in less than an hour if I went up against the people you’ve probably got lined up.”

Young doesn’t deny it, nor is he particularly disappointed by Jones’ answer. He had expected as much already, he just wanted to verify. He claps Riley on the shoulder. “You’ve got a good life here.” He says with a grin. “If you ever get bored of it you know where to find me.”

Riley shakes his hand, smiling broadly at him. Inside the house Leah is humming a merry tune. “Don’t hold your breath, mate. But if you ever get bored with your big city life you’re welcome to come kick it here for a few hours. We’ll fire up the barbie, trade some war stories, maybe herd some cows. Who knows, you might enjoy it.”

Young can’t help but laugh at that. “Yeah, I don’t know about that. Thanks for the offer though, I’ll keep it in mind. Please give my regards to your lovely wife. I should hit the road again.”

“Yeah yeah, busy man.” Riley laugs. “Leagues to run, killers to woo, I get it. Take care, yeah?”

“Always.” Young says, wondering when he’d last taken that kind of advice to heart.

Shanghai, China – Chang Kun Wei

Shanghai is a stark, unpleasant contrast compared to Wainui. Skyscrapers tower over streets that are cluttered with pod-traffic and smog. The people running around have their faces covered, keeping the filthy air out. Not that it would help much against the radiation.

Young didn’t see much of that part of the city. The Shanghai Prison might be situated somewhere in the murkiest part of Shanghai, but that’s not where Chang Kun Wei is kept. Young fiddles with his tie. “It looks fine.” Rory tells him. Young knows that. It just feels restricting, after Cidade and Wainui.

“Fucking Asia.” he hears himself grumbling. His reflection in the elevator-mirror looks displeased.

“I know, right?” Rory mutters. “This league, too. I know the leagues operate pretty separate from each other, but firebombing? Really, Asialeague? That’s where it went?”

“It must have sounded like a good idea at the time.” Young offers. He wouldn’t know. He hadn’t been around then. The league hadn’t gotten much saner since then. Of course Chang dominated it for years on end, but that hadn’t made the preliminaries tame. There was something about the region that made the Asia League the most intense league out there. “Sometimes I wonder if this entire region is insane.” He tells Rory.

The elevator door pings open, and he finds himself face to face with Detective Wu, the man who had been instrumental to Chang’s capture, if the media were to be believed. Of course, Young had been there when Chang was captured, and he knows that the only man instrumental to his capture is Chang himself. He handed himself in.

Young wonders if Wu feels sore about that sometimes. “Ah, there you are.” Wu grumbles. “Well, come on then. I haven’t got all day, and I don’t know why you need to be here in person anyway. This compromises security, and your boss knows it. We could have sent you his signature without making this into a fucking gameshow.”

“Except that your district attorney insisted all parties are present for the hand-over of Chang’s sentence.” Young looks at Wu, smirking. “Weren’t you there for that decree?”

He had been. Wu had been at every single court appearance of Chang since his capture. He’d been a witness in some, and a strong advocate of the death sentence for the greatest league participant Asia had ever known. He had pitched a legendary fit when Young’s legal team had interfered, and finagled a deal with the judges that would let Chang participate in the world league.

Wu snarls at him. “You know what, fuck you and your entire corporation. You want to give that man another chance to hit the street?” He points at a window, on the other side of which Chang is sitting, handcuffed, but leaning back as if he’s right where he wants to be. “Take a good look at him, Young. You’re looking at a goddamn statistic. That’s what he’s become, just a fucking figure in the history books. He’s a mass murderer, and you want to parade him around like a hero.”

Young arches an eyebrow at him. He’s heard it all before, regarding Halver, regarding Mahler, and regarding Chang. How dare the corporation give these murderers another chance at freedom? “Fucking hippies.” Hugh calls them. Young doesn’t often agree with Hugh, but in this case their opinions are shockingly similar.

The detective seems to read it on his face. “You people fucking disgust me.” He spits out before turning on his heel and leaving Young by himself, with the district attorney, the judge and Chang on the other side of the glass. He can’t help but smirk at Wu’s retreating form.

“Shall we?” he says to the judge. He sounds smarmy even to his own ears.

Hong Kong, China – Cyan Li

The door opens and reveals a woman no older than twenty, with bright blue hair and a merry smile. She looks at Young. Blinks. Looks at Young again. Then she bursts into laughter. “Nope!” she says, and slams the door in his face. Young grins.

“Well, looks like you were right about her.” Rory says in his ear, sounding dejected. “Man, I was so sure she’d say yes if you visited her in person. She’s so good too, I mean, you’ve seen the footage.”

Young has indeed seen the footage. Cyan Li is an aspiring artist who won a deathmatch in rural China. She is graceful, quick, deadly, and obviously a little crazy. She is also the most camera-shy person Young has ever had the pleasure of almost meeting. “Don’t worry about it. Not everyone is deathmatch material. We’ll keep an eye on her, she might change her mind sometime in the future. If she ever participates in another underground match you need to have her arrested though. It’s bad enough this one slipped through the mazes.”

Rory sighs. “Yeah, I guess. Sorry for sending you on a wild goose chase.”

“Hey, don’t worry about it. Better luck next time, alright. It was just a small detour anyway. We still have plenty of time to get to the Black City.”

Black City, Russia – Adil Ramses

The first thing that hits him is the stench. He’s in a rundown part of a rundown city, and everything smells murky and damp, like mold and old basements and secrets. What he smells when he enters the long underground hallway is nothing like that. It smells like decay. He gags a little, and next to him Gershan chuckles. “A bit strong, I know.” He smiles and its a dangerous, enigmatic thing. “It’s one of Solchov’s old haunts. I would have levelled it, but Irina doesn’t like to waste things. And she was right, of course.”

Young presses a handkerchief to his face. He’d feel like a loser for it, but some of Gershan’s henchmen look equally affected. Only Gershan himself looks like he doesn’t mind at all. Perfectly composed, as always. “You have a lot of occasion to use this, then?” Young finds himself asking. The Black City is an enigma. He’s a child of the States, himself. This is Irina’s domain, and like Irina it’s a mystery to him. An old-world place that seems to have been lost in time.

Gershan shrugs. “Some.” he mutters, his eyes on one of the cells at the end of the hallway. “Not as much as in the beginning. Things are more… settled, now. Come. You’re not here to enjoy the scenery, right? Irina has a gift for you.”

Young ponders on ‘the beginning’, as Gershan put it. The first years of Irina’s command of the Black City underground. He’d read up on it, of course. They even talk about it from time to time, when Irina feels nostalgic. Young can barely keep his eyes off her scars when she does. The beginning. The old days. His footsteps echo through the damp hallway as he realizes he’s in an entirely different world. One in which only the hardest survive. Maybe that’s why Gershan smiles so much. Out in Young’s world, he’s a king, or a prince at least. In here he’s sharkbait, and his alliance with Irina is probably the only thing keeping Gershan in line.

“You seem lost in thought, my friend.” The other man says, effectively bringing Young back to the here and now. He shrugs.

“Just wondering what I’m worth on the black market these days.” He says, offering a cocky smile. He doesn’t quite feel it.

Gershan laughs again. There’s something about it, the way he throws his head back in an old-fashioned, movie star kind of way that reminds Young of Irina. “It’s substantial. But you shouldn’t worry, no one would cross Irina here, or Stender anywhere else. You are quite possibly the safest man in the world.”

“That’s comforting to hear.” Young mutters. There are two burly guards standing next to the door. This is it. He can feel his heart skip a beat in excitement. He won’t be the most lethal or even the most famous competitor in this world league, but he will definitely be the most controversial. Young peers through the bars on the door, but can’t see anything in the half light. “What condition is he in?”

Next to him Gershan barks something in Russian to one of the guards, who points a flashlight at the man inside the cell. In the harsh light, Adil Ramses looks like a corpse. There are wounds on his torso that are clearly from torture. His eyes are sunken in, and his face is ashen gray. His breathing is shallow.

“Jesus.” Young breathes, coughing slightly at the stench. Gershan nudges him, and hands him a pad. A glance at it tells him it has Ramses’ signature and fingerprint. “You’ll get him patched up before the match, right?”

“Of course. We never wanted to be so rough on him, but he didn’t want to sign.” Gershan shrugs, looking angelic and demonic all at the same time. “What were we supposed to do, eh? He’ll be fine. We’ll make sure he’s in good shape before the match. Irina thinks there will be some excellent betting involved.”

Young nods, distracted by the wreck of a man on the other side of the door. “Probably. Huh. Has Irina been down here?”

“No.” Gershan’s voice loses some of its pleasant tone for the first time since Young touched down, but it’s not directed at him. “No, she doesn’t care for this place much. The underground, I mean.” He shrugs, his mouth twitching slightly before he turns on his heel, clapping Young on the back. “Solchov casts a long shadow. Now come, you have time for coffee.”

“Yes I do.” Young says, grinning widely. If he walks a little faster to get above ground, no one comments on it.

Alexandria, Egypt – Adhiambo Merari

“And I thought the Black City was bad.” Rory’s voice startles Young out of the reverie he has been in since leaving the dark tunnels where Adil Ramses was kept. “I mean, it’s not like it’s bad in the same way, but Jesus. I thought this place had a proper government these days?”

Young finds himself shrugging. “Define proper government. This place has always been a mess and will always be a mess.” The pod pulls over in front of a tall building. “We’re sure this is the place?”

“Absolutely. She was spotted going in just under an hour ago, and she hasn’t left yet. She’s probably all fucked up on some illegal substance by now, if the rumours are true.” They are. Young’s observations have shown that much. When she’s not fighting for her life, Adhiambo Merari seems determined not to be lucid at all. “You think she’ll say yes?” Rory sounds doubtful. Young wonders if his confidence is shaken by Cyan’s reaction.

“I think she will. She’s got all that rage, and nowhere to direct it at. She’ll probably tell herself that’s not why she’s doing it, but in the end it really is.” Inside the building its pleasantly cool. The half-light reveals several people sitting against walls or on half-sunken couches, looking spaced out. “I wonder what the drug du-jour is.” Young whispers. Not that it matters. Doped up or not, Adhiambo will say yes. He knows it.

His local source is waiting for him at the end of a hallway on the third floor. He points at a lavishly furnished room. A glance inside tells Young that Adiambo is by herself, holding a cigarette of some sort between her fingers. He clears his throat as he steps inside.

“I know why you are here.” the dark woman says, half turning towards him. Her eyes are half-lidded, but still sharp. Maybe she’s sober this time. There are scars on her cheeks, and his files tell him that those scars cover her entire body. She’s still beautiful, the way a forest fire can be beautiful. He leans against the doorway.

“The world league, huh?” She continues, turning herself towards him completely now. She smiles, but it’s the smile of a predator. A baring of teeth, not intended to be seen as friendly. “Why would I want to join your world league, Mister Young. You think I still have something to prove? You think I want to show the world that I’m good enough? Is that what you think?”

Young shrugs, his body relaxed while Adhiambo works herself into a frenzy. Her anger is close to the surface now, bubbling over.

“Why the fuck should I care what some white boy thinks?” She snorts, bringing the cigarette to her lips and inhaling deeply. Her fingers tremble slightly. A muscle in her jaw ticks. Everything about her is coiled like a spring. “You don’t care what I think either. You want to hear my sob story? Fuck you, no one wants to hear about it. No one cares. No, they all just… you, you just want to know what I’m going to do with it. What I’m going to do with all that rage.”

She approaches him now, slowly. He doesn’t move. Doesn’t flinch. Doesn’t take his eyes of her. She leans forward, and he can see how dilated her pupils are. He can smell the smoke of more than just tobacco on her breath. He can’t keep the smirk off his face. Adhiambo sneers at him, firmly lodged in his personal space now.

“I’m going to fuck them all up.” she says, her voice barely more than a whisper. “You’ve got good people on that list, yeah? Champions and all that. I’ll kill them. I’ll bleed them, make them wish they’d never been born.”

Young shifts against the door frame. She’s so close now he can feel the heat radiating from her body. He leans forward a bit anyway. “Then maybe you should drop the act, and sign on the dotted line, sweetheart.” He bites out at her.

For a moment she just snarls at him, like a wild animal. He’s a little worried she might try to rip his throat out with her teeth. She looks like she’s contemplating murder, at the very least. Long seconds tick by. “Give me the fucking pen, asshole.” She finally grinds out, stepping away from him.

He waits until he’s outside again before he lets out a shaky breath. “Motherfucker. I’m never doing this again.”

Munich, Europe – Logan Falk

The contrast between Adhiambo’s Alexandrian drug-den and Logan’s family home in Munich is jarring. Young is left sitting on the comfortable couch in the family room while the European league champion is in the kitchen, arguing with his wife. He can’t stop the nervous bounce of his knee. He’s tried sitting back already, but that feels wrong as well. His eyes race over the multitude of pictureframes on the wall, telling Logan Falk’s life story.

Everyone has a sob story, Adhiambo had said earlier. She was right. Some sob stories are more inspiring than others though. Logan was never meant to be in the league. He’s probably the gentlest person Young has ever met. An artist with a pretty wife and a young son, who happens to have a talent with a sniper-rifle. If it hadn’t been for his son’s heart condition, he would have never joined the league. He would have never won the league. Young wouldn’t have ended up in his living room, pretending not to listen to the way Logan is winning the argument with his wife.

And yet here he is. Logan will sign up, he already knows it, and so does his wife. They love their son. Young feels bad about it. Not about asking Logan to sacrifice his life in the arena for his son, but for the way he and Rory will tell the world about it. How they’ll share Logan’s tale of woe. He looks around the living room again, and wonders how it will change. He imagines pictures on the wall after the match that will no longer feature Logan.

The argument in the kitchen dies down. They must have had it a hundred times already, even though they both know the outcome. Logan already risked his life for his son once, and he’d do it again. His wife already said goodbye to him once, in the Euroleague. She too would make the same decision now as she did the first time around.

Because they love their son. Young tries to stop fidgeting, and wonders if he should feel worse about it all.

Amsterdam, Europe – Lannie Williams

“You look like hell.” His pilot says the second Young steps back into the jet. He smirks and presses an injector into his hand. “Rory said you might be crashing by now. I’d tell you to take a nap, but we’re only ten minutes out from Amsterdam. I can circle round a bit if you need longer though.”

Young shakes his head, making a mental note to give Rory a raise as soon as he’s back Stateside. “Just get us there. I’ll be fine.” He flops down in one of the comfortable chairs and rams the needle into his thigh. Seconds later he feels the stimms course through his body, pulling him back from the brink of exhaustion to something more moderate.

“Bit of excitement then?” The pilot asks while he navigates the jet to the next city.

“That’ll be the understatement of the century. Christ. These people, Frank. I don’t know why so many of them still walk around among civilians sometimes. Ninety percent of them are just an accident waiting to happen.”

“Children of the new world, sir.” Frank comments. He’s an old school pilot, the kind that Stender preferred. Combat-tested and everything. “It’s messed up sometimes,” He goes on, sounding contemplative, “but I think that if we didn’t have things like the league, we’d be worse off. Half the people alive today experienced the war firsthand, and the other half is still dealing with the aftermath. Even people like Falk. And that girl, Williams, that you’re seeing next? I mean, think about it. Before the war, no one would have made a bet that would have landed them in the arena. Now no one thinks twice.”

“That almost sounds like criticism.” Young says, smirking at the pilot.

Frank smiles. “Not at all. I mean, are the leagues brutal and bloody, and are the stakes way too high? Sure. But what’s the alternative? Civil wars left and right?” He shrugs. “People might not like the leagues, but I haven’t heard anyone come up with an alternative yet. Besides, each and every person you’ve contracted today could have said no, just like that Jones fellow. They just don’t, because they’re too desperate or fucked up to think of the alternative. The way I see it, you’re not forcing anyone to do anything.”

The jet starts its descent, drawing Frank’s attention away from the conversation again for a while. There’s a tiny jolt as the jet sets down. “Besides, it keeps people off the streets. Not just people like Ruiz, but also league fans. That’s worth something, I think.”

~

Frank’s words echo in Young’s mind while he’s on his way to his next stop. “Too desperate or fucked up.” He shakes his head, glancing at his pad, where Lannie Williams’ contract is staring back at him. “Desperate enough, I hope.”

It has been less than two days since Lannie Williams lost all of her earnings in a bet she shouldn’t have made. Young rings the doorbell, hoping she hasn’t thought of another way to resolve her situation yet. The timing in this particular case feels crucial. Out of all of the competitors, Lannie feels like the one that might slip through his fingers if he gets there too late.

The door in front of him opens, and reveals Lannie’s boyfriend. Young is only vaguely familiar with him. He smiles anyway. “Mister Lane?” he asks.

Lane shifts from one foot to the next, looking both groggy and agitated. “Yeah. Can I help you? If you’re here to collect the money, I’m sorry but-”

Young can’t stop the smile the spreads on his face. The timing feels perfect. He holds up a hand to cut off the flow of words from Lane. “Please, mister Lane. My name is Young.” There’s a flash of recognition on his face now. Young briefly wonders if Lane remembers that Young was the one behind the rookie world league. “I’m here on behalf of the Corporation. I have an offer for Lannie Williams that I’d like to discuss with her. Can I come in?”

Without really waiting for an answer from Lane Young walks past him, into the apartment he shares with Williams. He sets himself down on the couch. The signs of the past forty hours are still clear in the livingroom. Plates haven’t been cleared out. Empty bottles are temporarily placed under the coffeetable. He doesn’t have to wait long.

Lannie Williams walks in, and she looks just like her lover. Her eyes are puffy, her hair is in disarray, and she looks distraught. He remembers her well. They’d spoken a few times, during the rookie league. Williams is sharp, and Young relishes in the moment her eyes meet his, and she realizes why he’s there. “Walter, go take a hike, will you?” She says, turning her attention to Lane.

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” He says, crossing his arms. It’s a defiant pose that oozes with his concern for the woman he loves.

Williams sighs, her eyes flitting from Lane to Young and back again. “I think I need to do this one alone, babe. Sorry.”

There is desperation in Lane’s voice as he argues with his lover. “This is my life too.” Young wonders if he already knows what’s going to happen here today. Not for the first time this day he’s struck by the differences between his competitors. Logan and his wife had chosen to argue in private. Lane and Williams seem to have forgotten that he’s there entirely.

Williams stands her ground. “Not until we are married, love.” She says, harshly, though her eyes speak different volumes all together. “Not your money, not your problem. I created this mess… let me do this one alone. I deserve it.”

Young could see the exact moment Lane gave in. His shoulders slumped slightly, and he stepped towards Williams, grabbing her hand. “Alright. I’ll go grab us some breakfast or something. Take care.” Seconds pass between them, but finally Lane turns on his heel, leaving Young alone with Williams.

Williams turns to him the second the front door closes. There’s something determined about the look on her face. “You’re here about the world league?” she asks.

Young simply nods. “Vermeer already told you about it, I presume?”

Williams nods, looking grim. “How much?” she asks after a moment of silence. Her eyes are shiny, and Young is absolutely sure that tears will be shed about her decision tonight.

“Enough.” he says, smiling sympathetically, pushing the contract towards her.

She only hesitates for a second before signing.

Amsterdam, Europe – Valentina Marin

As he walks up to Valentina’s apartment he realizes he’s no closer to figuring out how to handle this than he had been at the start of his mission. “Just go talk to her.” He mutters, repeating his earlier pep-talk to himself, “It’ll be fine. Ugh. Fuck it, I’m not doing this. She doesn’t want to come back. She doesn’t want to. You know how I know this? Because she didn’t come back. For a year. That’s a pretty big hint, you idiot. Fuck, I’m such an idiot.” He paces in front of the entry-way to her building, ranting to himself.

“Young? Are you alright?” Rory’s voice sounds worried over the earpiece. “You’re kind of freaking me out here, boss.” Young barks a laugh at that, pulling a hand through his hair. “Just… take a deep breath, ok? It’ll be fine.”

Young shakes his head. “God… I don’t know, Rory. I mean… she left. And she spent the last year completely incommunicado. And maybe Vermeer was wrong, about her striking up a friendship with Williams. And so what if she’s bored? Just because she’s bored doesn’t mean she’s going to want to return to the league. Fuck.”

Rory’s voice is soothing, shushing him. “Hey, take it easy. She left, yeah, I know that. Everyone knows that, and everyone knows that there was some bad blood, but she’s still the same person underneath all of that. And you were friends, right? So just go and talk to you. Worst case scenario she says no. She’s not going to throw you out of the window just because you wanted to talk to her.”

“Well, that’s a comforting thought. No, she’s not going to throw me out of a window.” Young exhales sharply, ignoring the confused look the doorman sends his way. Rory is right, of course. They’re friends. Or were friends, at least, once upon a time before Stender fucked that up. Maybe that’s something he can salvage, still. If it’s not too late. “Right. Going in now.” He turns on his heel and walks into the building, looking far more determined than he feels. Rory cheers softly in his ear.

~

Vermeer hands him his second glass of whiskey with a comforting pat on the back. “Don’t take it too personally, Young. She just gets like that.” The older man shrugs, smiling wryly. “And who’s going to tell a six-time league champion she’s being antisocial? Not me, that’s for sure.”

Young throws his whiskey back in one gulp, relishing the burn as it goes down. He had expected a lot of things, walking up to Valentina’s apartment. He’d expected her to throw the door in his face, to punch him, to yell at him or even to hug him. He hadn’t expected her to ignore him completely. “And for all I know she might not even be in there. She sneaks out sometimes.” Vermeer continues.

“No… none of my sources have seen her leave the building today. She’s in there, she’s just ignoring me.” He half-shrugs, pretending that it doesn’t hurt like hell. “I mean, it was to be expected, really. She was angry when she left the league, and there’s no reason to think of her as a forgiving person.”

Vermeer shoots him a commiserating look. “Must be hard on Stender too. I mean, she was hís contestant. Almost like she represented the corporation. And she really did stay in shape. She and that Williams girl have been training regularly. Running and things.” He shrugs again. “Maybe she’s taking on more of a mentoring role though. And who can blame her, after all those years?”

“No one.” Young knows it. He just… “I just hoped that she’d talk to me, that’s all. I mean, I haven’t spoken to her in almost a year. And she’s good company, when she wants to be.” Vermeer chuckles at that, nodding in agreement. “Look, I just want to get some air. Can I use your balcony? Is that all right?”

He barely awaits Vermeer’s answer before he’s sliding open the balcony door and slips outside, into the warm afternoon air. He leans over the railing and looks down at the street. The pod is standing there, waiting for him to get back to it. He should go. He should get in and get back Stateside and tell Stender he got ten successes, and the man wouldn’t give a shit because of this one failure.

“No, that’s not right.” He mutters. After all, Stender wants Valentina back, but he never once suggested that she should come back for the world league. He had never dropped so much as a hint about it. This failure belongs to him, and him alone. He knows its pointless to hang around here and wait, and yet he finds himself unwilling to give up and leave.

He glances to his left. Valentina’s balcony, attached to Valentina’s house. Somewhere inside she’s waiting for him to leave, so she can emerge again. Because she doesn’t want to talk to him. He finds himself at the edge of Vermeer’s balcony, looking down. “Fuck, that’s deep.” he breathes. He remembers the footage of Lannie’s victory party three months ago. How Valentina had leaped from one balcony to the next, as if it was nothing. He remembers how good that footage had made him feel. How hopeful.

“Don’t even think about it.” Rory breathes in his ear, by the time Young realizes he’s standing on the ledge of Vermeer’s balcony. “Jesus, Young, don’t be ridiculous, you’re not Valentina.” Rory sounds a little frantic now. He can hear the phone ring inside Vermeer’s house. He imagines it’s Rory, trying to draw Vermeer’s attention to the fact that there’s a mad man on his balcony. “You can’t do that.” Rory tries again.

“Shut up. I can do anything.” he says, grinning widely now. Before he can reconsider his actions, he leaps. Time seems to slow while he’s in the air. For a moment he thinks he’s flying. He’s invincible. The next he thinks he’s an idiot, he’s miscalculated, he’s going to die, he’s going to… and then his feet hit the concrete of Valentina’s balcony. He brushes himself off. “Huh. That was surprisingly easy. You know what, screw this shit, maybe I should be in the league.”

Rory is breathing heavily on the other side of the line. “Oh my god, you asshole! What the fuck did you do that for, you could have died!” Young instantly feels a little bad about it.

“Hey, don’t worry. It wasn’t actually that far. And I’m fine. Totally intact and everything.” He tries to ease Rory’s mind.

“Fuck you, man. You’re out of your goddamn mind, that’s what. Jesus. You can’t just /do/ shit like that to me. Asshole.”

Young can’t help but laugh. “Alright, alright. I’m sorry. No more balcony jumping, I promise.”

“And you’re not joining the league either, you crazy bastard.” Rory bites at him. Young laughs again.

“I’d get killed in two seconds flat. You have nothing to worry about, Rory. Well, unless Val decides to kill me now, in which case you’ll definitely need to look for a new job.” He wanders over to the large sliding window, but curtains are closed. Damn. Just his luck.

“As if I care about the job.” Rory mutters, sounding petulant for a moment before he seems to remember that he’s actually working right now. “Saunders just reported back. He’s definitely sure no one saw her leave today, so unless she hasn’t been home since Friday, she’s definitely in there.”

Young breathes in and out slowly for a moment, trying to calm himself down. “Alright. Here goes nothing then.” He tries the sliding door, finding it locked. Unsurprisingly, really. Val might be a six time league champion, but in this world all that really means is that people know she’s loaded. It’s an easy lock to break though. The door slides open with a soft hiss, and Young steps inside, trying to remain quiet.

He steps into Val’s livingroom. Despite the curtains it’s fairly light inside. The walls are a creamy white. The apartment is clean, stylishly furnished and oddly soulless except for the few cat-toys lying around on the floor. The owner of the toys is currently on the back of the couch, peering at him with golden eyes. “Nice kitty.” Young whispers. The cat gives him a look that’s devoid of any intelligence.

There’s no sign of Valentina. Young’s heart skips a beat. Maybe she really hasn’t been back since Friday. Fuck. He should have asked Williams. He should have called ahead. He should have… A shadow materializes next to him out of nowhere, and the next thing he knows he’s blocking a blow to his head.

“Val!” he squeaks, throwing up his hands to protect himself. He’s too slow. A fist catches him in the mouth. His head snaps back and hits the wall. Just before everything goes dark he sees Valentina stare at him, looking wide-eyed, angry and a little surprised.

~

He wakes up to the feeling of an icepack landing on his face. He’s sitting on Valentina’s comfortable couch, and his head hurts like hell. There’s a cat sitting in his lap, and he’s pretty sure Val is standing behind him, pressing something to the back of his head. “Ow.” he says, because it feels like the only appropriate thing to say.

“You’re an idiot.” Valentina says, flicking his ear. She sounds exasperated, angry and amused all at the same time. He can’t see her, but he’s almost sure she’s smiling. “You realized I could have shot you, right? I thought you were a burglar.”

“Like fuck you thought I was a burglar. I’ve been ringing your doorbell for half an hour at least, Val. You were ignoring me.” He grouches. His head throbs, and he’s pretty sure he’s going to throw up soon.

“What, just now? I thought that was Vermeer. He’s been harassing me all week, I didn’t feel like talking to him.” Another pause. Young imagines she’s shrugging now. “But he usually gives up after a minute though. Guess he wasn’t going through a particularly tenacious phase.”

Young grumbles, ignoring Val in favor of the cat sitting in his lap. He’s not necessarily a cat person, but even he has to admit that there’s something adorable about the vacant expression. From the corner of his eye he sees Val move around. She puts a glass of something in his hand, before sitting down on her coffee table, right in front of her. Young is starting to feel a little silly about the way he can’t make himself meet her eyes.

“I wouldn’t have ignored you, if I’d known it was you.” Val says after a moment of silence. “And I wouldn’t have hit you, if I’d known it was you. Although you probably deserve it.”

He finally looks up at her. “I had nothing to do with Le Blanc…” he starts. She shakes her head.

“No, I know. But you probably deserve it anyway. Lets face it, Young, you do a lot of shit in the name of the corporation that really ought to get you punched in the nose at least. Just think of it as karma.” The corner of her mouth twists into a smile. It’s not exactly cheerful, and there’s a hint of something ruthless in her eyes. “Is he listening in?” She asks, nodding at the right side of his face.

Young reaches up, not getting what she’s talking about until he touches the earpiece he’s still wearing. “You mean Stender? No, he’s not listening in. This is my personal assistant, Rory. He’s new.” He pulls the device out of his ear and hands it to Val, who drops it into the glass of water in his hand. “Hey!” he complains. Valentina shrugs. He offers her a small smile in return. “When did you get so fucking paranoid?”

“Around the time Stender tried to kill me.” she deadpans.

Young sighs, running a hand over his face. It comes back bloody. He has a split lip, probably. “What do you want me to say to that, Val? That I’m sorry? I am, but I didn’t know. I should have, but I didn’t, and it doesn’t change anything. Or, what, you want to hear that Stender’s sorry? Fuck that, you know he is. You know it. He fucked up, Val, and he’ll be the first person to admit it.”

Val’s hand closes around his wrist, pulling his hand away from his face. Her grip is close to painful, and her eyes are hard. A muscle in her jaw twitches. She’s in his face, exactly the same way Adhiambo had been a few hours ago, and yet nothing like that at all. He swallows, feeling infinitely more fragile now than he had felt in Alexandria.

“I want you to tell me why you’re here.” Valentina says, her voice low and dangerous. “I want you to stop with the mindgames, and tell me the truth for once. Can you do that for me, Young? Because I think you owe me that much, at least.”

Young finds himself nodding. “Yeah.” he whispers. “Okay, yeah, of course. Fuck, Val, I never meant to break into your goddamn house and… I’m just… I’m sorry, all right? I just wanted to talk to you.” He exhales, feeling her fingers loosen around his wrist. He wonders if she’ll break it when he brings up the league.

“But that’s not why you’re here.” She says. He shakes his head.

“No. I’m just worried you’ll punch me in the face again when I tell you why I’m here.” He smirks. It hurts. Valentina simply raises an eyebrow at him. It simultaneously says /don’t be an idiot/ and /stop pretending I’m an idiot/.

“It’s the world league.” He says, looking down at the cat again. Anything to avoid Valentina’s eyes. “We’re organizing the world league. And you’re invited. Obviously you’re invited. You were the Northern League champion six times in a row, Val. No on else has done that, and I don’t think anyone else will.”

He looks up. Valentina’s expression doesn’t give him anything. No hope, no fear, no rejection. It’s blank, businesslike. He hates it. “Keep talking.” She bites out. “Who’s in. No surprises, Young.”

He swallows. His eyes flick to the earpiece in the glass of water. It’s busted. There’s no way in hell the corporation can overhear what’s being said here. Val notices his hesitation and takes the glass out of his hand, putting it on the far edge of the table.

“Almost everyone.” he whispers. “Bijou, of the rookie league. We’ve got Forest Wilson, from MIT who’s an expert in modern tech. He’ll be preparing a number of traps in the arena. We’ve got General Halver, who’s only in because we’ve also got Adil Ramses. We’ve got Adam Mahler. He’s a… a serial killer and rapist, I guess. I don’t know if you’ve been following the news, but we’re pretty excited about that one.” Although he knows these aren’t the names she’s waiting for, he’s still smiling. They’re good names, damnit, and he’d like to see anyone else alive today get such a line-up. Valentina merely gives him another raised eyebrow. She knows the best is yet to come.

“Ruiz is in.” He says. “I thought you’d know about him already. I mean, you two are friends, right? And he’s insane, so I figured he’d call you or something.”

Val glances at a side-table. Her phone is on it. “Fuck. Well, that explains a few things. I did wonder why Vermeer was so persistent today. Guess it wasn’t actually him at the door /or/ on the phone.” She hesitates for a moment. “Who else? There’s more, right?”

“Of course there’s more.” Young can barely hide his excitement now. “We didn’t get Riley Jones, but I figure Asia League fans still have something to cheer for.” He doesn’t have to be a genius to notice the way Valentina appears to be holding her breath. “We looked into an illegal deathmatch winner for a while, but in the end we got someone so much better.”

“Chang.” Valentina breathes. “You got Chang.” It’s not even a question. Young grins at her. “Fuck. Oh, fuck. You actually got Chang? You’re ridiculous. How much did that cost you?”

He shugs. “Just a few favors, a few strings pulled.” He tries to make it sound like it was no big deal. Valentina squeezes his wrist slightly. “Or, you know, a lot of strings pulled. Either way, we have Chang. It’s locked in. Settled. He is in.”

He worries for a moment that every name that follows will be a disappointment, but Valentina looks interested now. It feels like she’s on the edge of her seat. “We have Adhiambo.” He continues. “That should be interesting, I think, especially in combination with a few of the other contestants. And we managed to get Logan Falk in too.”

“Ooh, sniper.” Val grins at him. “I’ve met him, he’s a nice guy. Great sniper too. One of the best I’ve ever seen. I’m impressed, Young.” He can almost feel the excitement burning inside her. She’s competitive. He knows it, and for a second he’s tempted to lie to her, and keep the last name to himself. She’d never forgive him.

It only takes him a few seconds to decide that that’s not something he can live with. “That’s not all.” he says. His voice wavers, and he’d blame it on the stimms, or the lack of sleep or the adrenaline if he was even the least bit interested in lying to himself. He’s not. “I offered the opportunity to Lannie Williams.”

Valentina’s eyes go wide, and her fingers tense around his wrist. “Tell me she said no.” She says, the excitement bleeding from her eyes. Young remains silent. It’s an answer on its own. “Oh fuck. She said yes? Why would she say yes?”

“Gambling debts.” Young tells her. He can see her connect the dots in her mind. “She bet the money she won from her championship on the Northern League. She earned enough to pay off her outstanding debts, but this new gamble puts her miles deep in the red.” He puts his free hand over hers, squeezing it softly. “It’s her choice, Valentina. She can still back out if she changes her mind, but right now it’s her call to make, and she’s in.”

Valentina swallows once. Her gaze flits at the side-table which holds her phone, but she doesn’t reach for it. Not yet, at least. “She told you this in person?” she asks instead.

Young nods. “I spoke to her today, before I came here. Every contestant has given me their answer today, Val. In person.”

She smiles wryly at him. “That’s a lot of house-calls to make, Young.”

He shrugs. “It’s all part of the game. I’m the supreme recruiter now.” He chuckles. “You should have seen the look on Berntsson’s face…”

“What about the look on Stender’s face?” Valentina interrupts him. Her voice is hard. Her fingers are tight around his wrist again.

“Angst, mostly.” Young breathes.

“Young…” Val says, sounding exasperated.

“Val.” He counters. “He’s given you space, all right? We’ve all given you space. Never mind that you just up and left without letting anyone know where you went. It took me a fucking week to figure out you intended to stay in Amsterdam, but even though Vermeer is right here, we never interfered. We stayed away, because… well, that’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”

He pulls his wrist out of her grip. It’s surprisingly easy. “I’ve already said it once today, Val, but I’ll say it again because I care about you. I’m sorry. Irina is sorry. And Stender? Fuck, you’ve never seen a sorrier person in your entire life. He’s been miserable since you left. Made our lives miserable, and the only reason he’s not here right now, begging you to come back to the compound on his knees is because you’ve made it perfectly clear that he’s not welcome.”

He rubs a hand over his face again, surprised to find that his mouth is still sore. “But he wouldn’t be here to ask you to join the world league anyway.” He confesses. It had been a point of contention between himself and Stender, but in the end he won out on the simple reason that they could simply not avoid inviting Val, based on her reputation and status alone.

“So he doesn’t want me to come back after all.” Valentina concludes. Young sighs.

“Don’t be an idiot. Of course he wants you to come back. He just doesn’t want you to join the world league. He doesn’t want you to face off with the likes of Ruiz and Chang. He doesn’t want to see you get hurt again, Valentina. He just wants you back. He misses you. We all do.”

He swallows, but his mouth is dry. His head throbs, and he’s pretty sure he has a mild concussion at least. Nothing a regen station won’t fix. The stimms are wearing off as well, and Young feels every minute he’s been awake so far. He rises to his feet, slowly, watching the world spin for a moment before settling. “Please think about it, ok?”

He turns away from her and is halfway to the door when he hears her speak up. “I’ll do it.” She says. Her voice is rough. “I’ll join your stupid world league, Young. That’s all I can do right now. I don’t know if…”

She doesn’t finish the sentence, but it’s enough for now.

2287: Can’t Happen Here

Posted: October 27, 2012 by Kelly in stories, the world

2287: Can’t Happen Here

The first abduction attempt comes after eleven months in Solchov’s ‘employ’, four months after Niki’s death.

Irina is alone in Solchov’s quarters, using his terminal to answer messages and write reports on her findings. He’s given her the task of going through his databases to see who might be embezzling money and who is doing their work well. Why he’s given her the task is beyond her – maybe it’s something to keep her mind busy while he’s gone. He’s had her tested not too long ago on her strengths and weaknesses because tying her to the bed all day has apparently become stale.

He’s promised her rewards if she does well. The punishment if she /doesn’t/ do well is something he doesn’t have to mention. Irina knows very well by now what it entails to be in Solchov’s vicinity and tries her very best to always please him. Pleasing him means that life is almost bearable. Displeasing him, however – well, she tries not to.

4 am finds her peering over financial reports, ledgers and files. There are empty cans of energy drink everywhere and some untouched sandwiches that she /really/ has to clean off the terminal before Solchov comes home from whatever out-of-city mission he is on at the moment, but for now she’s completely engrossed in her work. She thinks she’s found some discrepancies but she’s not completely sure who is responsible. Whoever has been doing this, he or she has hidden the tracks very well.

The room is lit by the lights from the terminal, giving the place a spooky bluish tinge. She hardly notices. She is sitting in sweatpants and an oversized t-shirt that she only gets to wear when Solchov’s not around, and is constantly wiping her unruly dark hair out of her face. It’s growing out because Solchov likes it, but it has come to the point where it is completely unmanageable. It’s the least of her annoyances, though, so she lets it be. Her fingers dance over the terminal as she compares financial reports, signatures and personal traces, completely lost in her own world.

At some point, everything suddenly starts happening. The window shatters, an alarm starts blaring, and there is a man in the room. He’s dressed in black and in the shadows, his face is unrecognisable.

For one wild, idiotic moment, Irina thinks that Solchov’s come home and that he’ll kill her when he sees the state of the place, before that irrational fear is replace by a very rational one.

The man walks over to her and she whirls around, holding up her hands in surrender. “What do you want? Do you even know whose house you’re raiding?” she asks with all the steel in her voice that she can muster up. Her heart is fluttering in her chest like a caged bird. “Solchov will have you killed for breaking into his house. You are /so/ dead.”

He just keeps approaching and something in his stance tells her that he’s amused. He’s much taller than she is. Broader. She’s been in her share of street fights, but by the way he moves she knows that she won’t have a chance if it would come to fighting. Solchov took his bodyguards with him on the mission and doesn’t let her keep a gun. She’ll have to stall the intruder, then – at least until his regular security people are here. “What do you want from him?”

He’s only a few feet away when he answers in an accent that’s totally not from the Black City. “You,” he says simply. “I want you. Come with me.”

Her heart freezes in her chest for a moment, but her mind is racing. The door is right behind her and it’s keyed in to her handprints. Well, her and Solchov. That’s why the man had to break in through the window. How he got up here, she doesn’t know – she’s on the eighth floor and there isn’t really a balcony he could have swung from. The area around the building is full of security. How did he get here? Or, more importantly, how does she get out?

“Fuck, no. You’ll have to catch me first,” she says with bravado she doesn’t feel, and abruptly pushes her desk chair in his direction to cause an obstruction. She doesn’t waste a second, but jumps over the desk to the door.

He’s right behind her; she can hear him. She slams her hand against the scanner and the door opens immediately. It’s just not quick enough to close after her, because he lunges for her legs just as the door starts to slide shut behind her. She collides painfully with the floor while he holds her legs in an iron grip. She trashes and screams, goes right for the face to try and claw his eyes out, but there is a mask that saves him there.

“Fuck you!” she screams as he tries to restrain her. All of her panic reflexes – the ones she has been trying to control for the past few months when Solchov plays his games with her – are in full swing. She fights for her life; for her sanity. /I will not be afraid!/ she shouts at herself while she tries not to imagine what this guy will do to her. /You will not touch me, you will not hurt me!/

And just when he hauls her up to take her wherever the hell he wants to take her, there is commotion in the hallway. There’s a bright flash and gas everywhere.

/Knock-out gas,/ Irina thinks when she smells the tell-tale scent of it. She tries to hold her breath to keep fighting, because the intruder doesn’t seem very affected. /Maybe he has a mouth piece under his mask./

He yanks her back into the bedroom, towards the window and all its broken glass and there’s a bright light outside; the sounds of a chopper. “No, no!” she protests, elbowing him in the stomach, wriggling in his grip, attempting to kick the snot out of his kneecaps. It is not working. “For fuck’s sake, /security!!/” she shouts – at the very moment they come rushing into the room. It is as if her shout has summoned them.

She uses the diversion to elbow him in the jaw and is able to break free. That way, she is not in his grip the moment they begin to fire. The intruder doesn’t have a chance. He dies before he hits the ground.

Some security guard installs her in the living room with a blanket around her shoulders and a cup of hot cocoa to calm down, while cleaners take care of the glass and fix the broken window. Irina quietly hopes they clean the terminal place as well before Solchov comes back.

He returns two hours later, enraged that someone had the gall to try and take her. She’s just happy he doesn’t say anything about the mess.

Strangely enough he rewards her for her behaviour. He gets her a diamond necklace and a bottle of vodka. “They wanted to abduct you to get to me,” he says later, when he pulls her against him in the jetstream bath tub. “You fought like a lion, though.”

“I couldn’t let him take me,” she murmurs with her eyes on the bubbles in the water.

“I know,” he says, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her in his lap. “Good girl.”

A couple of days later he walks into his rooms when she’s behind the terminal, still trying to find that elusive traitor embezzler in the tangle of financial files on Solchov’s system. He’s not alone, though – there is a boy walking next to him. He is tall and well-muscled under his outfit, with ragged blond hair that is in dire need of a cut. He doesn’t seem that much older than she is and her first idle thought when she looks at his pretty face is that maybe Solchov’s gotten another bed warmer, that maybe she’s off the hook.

“I’ve got a gift for you,” Solchov announces. The possessive look in his eyes tells her that /that/ was a silly, silly thought.

She gives the boy a curious look. “That’s kind. You shouldn’t have,” she retorts carefully.

He grins. “Irina, say hi to Pjotr Gershan. He’ll be your bodyguard from now on.”

“Hi,” she says automatically.

“Hi,” he retorts and looks at her with clear, sharp hazel eyes. As if he’s trying to look right through her. He’s smart. She likes him immediately. “Nice to meet you.” His voice is nice, too. Even though he probably doesn’t have to shave for quite a while, his voice is already that of a man’s. Warm. Pleasant to listen to.

She looks at Solchov and tries to summon disinterest in her face. “Isn’t he a little young to protect me?”

“He’ll do fine. He’s a great fighter,” Solchov answers, while Gershan’s eyes flash with something that might be pride. “Besides,” Solchov continues, “I know you like the pretty ones. He reminded me a little bit of your dead boyfriend Nikolay. What do you think, Irina?”

She blinks and keeps her face impassive. /Another one of his fucking headgames, then./ To please him, she really looks at her new bodyguard and tries to find similarities. Yet Niki was dark where Gershan is blonde, and Niki was stocky and about the same height as she was, while Gershan towers over her. He’s much healthier looking than Niki ever was. So she lies. “Yeah, I guess,” she says. “I can see what you mean… Around the eyes and jaw line, mostly.”

“Great,” Solchov says. “Do you like your gift, my dear?”

Irina nods slowly. “Yeah, thank you very much. If he can keep me from being abducted again, that would be great.”

Solchov quickly lays down the line; Gershan is to be around her pretty much day and night. They’ll keep similar sleep schedules, he’s always on call, and he’ll always be at least in the very next room. He’ll walk around with sensors that are wired to her, tuned in to things like her heartbeat and anxiety levels. He’ll be responsible for her safety. And, what goes is unsaid, is that he of course will guard her as well – if she still had any dreams of escaping, any chances of that sure as hell will be gone now.

“And, of course,” Solchov finishes cheerfully, “I know I really don’t have to say this, but Gershan, you’re new here and I like to be clear with all of my employees: keep your hands off her. I know she’s beautiful, but she’s mine. Understood?”

She doesn’t even feel mortified anymore. He loves doing that; stressing his ownership over her in front of other people. She just stands there, evenly looking at the two men in the room. Maybe it displeases Solchov that she doesn’t act uncomfortable, but she’ll take her victories where she can get them.

Gershan squirms enough for the both of them anyway. “Understood,” he says stiffly. It is all he says, but she can see that he understands very well what is going on. He can see the way she defers to him, her little lies. There are no tell-tale bruises on her bare arms or her face this time, but the faded needle marks are still there. Or maybe the low cut of her shirt and the short skirt tell him enough. Either way, he looks at her and he indeed understands.

/Don’t you dare pity me,/ she thinks vehemently, surprised at her own passion.

There is no pity in his eyes, just acceptance. And for that, she accepts him into her life as well.

2287: Blank and pitiless

Posted: October 27, 2012 by Kelly in stories, the world

Last night heralded the first night in forever that I actually slept reasonably well. It’s only four hours- five, maybe – but there were no nightmares. I don’t know whether it’s the prospect of seeing Niki or the oddly gentle mood that Solchov was in last night, but the effect is astounding.

The day seems brighter for it. I dress warmly; it’s been snowing all night and the Black City is covered under a thick layer of fresh snow. Everything looks sharp and white underneath a bright blue sky. When I leave the building (enforcer in tow), there are people shovelling snow all over the pod platform.

The enforcer is a tall Mongolian man who doesn’t say much, but doesn’t seem overly malicious, either. His name is Ming, that’s all I’ve gotten out of him. We ride Solchov’s pod in silence. I think about Niki and where I can probably find him. It’s the dead of winter, so with the alleys completely uninhabitable, if he’s not crashing with anyone, he’s probably in the warehouse.

He’s not. It takes a while to find him. It turns out that the warehouse where I spent so much time in the past two winters has burnt down. One of my old acquaintances tells me some idiot was high and fell asleep with his lit cigarette still in his hand. It wasn’t Niki, though. Nobody got hurt in the fire, either, so that’s a relief. I get referred to someone’s run down apartment over a seedy shop that’s supposed to sell food stuffs but has all the signs of a drug dealer. Telling the guy downstairs that I’m Irina and that I’m looking for Nikolay is enough.

“Are you Irina? He talks a lot about you,” the guy says, leaning back with his feet on the counter. He has a half-empty bottle of vodka in his hands.

The girl smoking pot in the corner laughs at that. “If by talking you mean crying.”

The guy shrugs. “Tell the tall Asian with you to stay outside. He looks like an enforcer. I don’t want him in here.”

I look at Ming, who shrugs and walks outside. “Don’t worry, he’s private,” I tell the vodka-drinking guy. “Can I go up and see Niki?”

He shrugs again and takes a swig from his bottle. “Knock yourself out. Can’t promise you he’s lucid, though. He scored quite the hit last night.”

“Asshole didn’t want to share, either. He just gave us a tiny bit and then locked the door,” the girl chimes in, but I hardly hear her. I’m already up the stairs and somehow… somehow the brightness of the day seems dimmed. Somehow it seems like something is wrong with the world, beyond the usual. The depression seems to have lifted from my eyes like a veil.

Suddenly I can feel again, and I feel despair. It courses through my veins like adrenaline. /He scored a hit, he wouldn’t share, he’s crying about you. Oh shit, please God no…/

The door is locked, like the girl indicated. There’s a glass window next to it, though. I don’t waste a second, I elbow the window. It shatters upon impact, tinkling over my boots. The first thing I do is trying to see through, but there’s nothing except a view on the curtained window. It’s the easiest thing in the world to reach through the broken window and open the door from the inside. Niki’s mates must not have been very interested in his smack, because it’s ridiculously easy to get to. They…

/Oh./

I drop dead in my tracks as I stare at Niki’s body lying on the floor. It’s immediately obvious.

/Oh…./

There is no smell yet apart from the moldiness of the room, but there is no way he can be still alive. Not with his body in that position. Not on the cold floor like that. Not with /so much fucking smack/ in the room.

There are words written on the floor next to him. /I’m sorry,/ is all it says.

He… he overdosed. He’s gone.

“Niki!” Maybe I’m whispering. I must be screaming.

I fall on my knees next to him, crying for the first time in months. Sobbing like my heart is breaking, which it might very well be. He’s gone, he’s fucking gone. He left me. /He is betraying you with every breath he takes,/ Solchov had told me. He’s wrong now. Niki is now betraying me without even breathing.

I gave everything for him and now he’s gone.

He’s gone and I’m still here. Oh fuck, I’m still here, this is going to be my life from now on. Night after night of Solchov, of revulsion and hatred directed at myself, the smell of oranges and the fear of my blood on Marat’s hands. It was doable as long as I knew that Niki was still alive. That made it worth something. Now that’s all gone, and all that is left is the rest of my fucking life in this waking nightmare. /No. Not this. Not alone. Not Solchov and no way out./

I reach out to the bag and the needles on the night stand. Grab them. Stare at them through a blurry haze of tears and only one thought rattles through my brain, like marbles. Like insanity and heartbreak and despair. So much fucking despair. /I want out. I want out./

Ming is waiting outside. Solchov is sitting in his office, waiting for me to return. I won’t. I won’t ever return to that; I’m going to follow Niki. Fuck this shit, I’m done. I’ve done what I could. I’ll probably burn in hell for the things I’ve done, but I don’t care. An eternity in hell might be even better than one more day on this world. I just… can’t do this anymore.

When it comes, the rush is like a tidal wave. It sweeps me away.

***

I open my eyes and blink against the bright sunlight that is attempting to stab me in the brain. My body feels like it has been mauled. It feels bruised and aches everywhere. Even the white sheets from the hospital bed chafe against my oversensitive skin.

/Shit. I made it./

That was not supposed to happen. Looking around I recognise my surroundings. I’m in a private room in the med center; one very similar to the one where I brought Niki, all those months ago. The place that saved his life. The place I have sold my soul for. There is an IV hooked up to my left hand and a oxygen mask on my face, but there are no life support computers hooked up to me. Crap. That probably means ean that they used regen treatment on me.

I sit up in bed in alarm and yank the oxygen mask off my face, gasping for breath and trying to get my panic reaction under control. At that moment the door slides open and reveals the last person I want to see right now.

“Good morning, sunshine,” Alek Solchov says around the straw in his mouth. He’s drinking one of his eternal fruit juices.

I cast my eyes down and try to stop my cheeks from turning a mortifying red. I don’t say anything.

“I bet you feel like arse. They had to work really hard to keep you from dying.”

“I’m sorry,” I whisper in an echo of Niki’s scrawl on the floor. I still can’t believe I’m not with him. Why couldn’t I go after him?

He sits down on the edge of the bed and lays his hand on my IV’ed hand. It aches. “I had to pay a lot of money to keep you alive, Irina. Were you that desperate?”

I want to cry, but I’m back in that state of numbness again, where the world becomes crystal clear and drowns out everything I might be feeling. My brain keeps flashing back to Niki’s lifeless body on the cold floor. “I guess I was weak, like he was. And now my debt with you is even higher, isn’t it?”

His hand squeezes mine, close enough to the IV needle to hurt like a motherfucker. The expression on his face is deceptively gentle, though. “I can tell you’re sorry this time, so I’m going to give you a pass on this one. You were weak, not willful. And I can imagine, you just had a shock. Grief can do things to you.”

All I can do is nod dumbly as he reaches out and wipes my hair out of my face. Why the sudden understanding? Was I that close to death? Is he honestly afraid of losing me? Is he playing mind games again? I have the feeling that he’s yanking on my chain again, but I can’t think anymore. I just close my eyes and lean into his touch. His hand is warm against my clammy skin.

“You still have a debt to pay. A bigger one now.”

“I know,” I murmur.

“Can I trust you to do so?”

Again with the flashback to Niki’s body on that floor. /I’m sorry./ Maybe he was weak, but I am the one who should be sorry. I was supposed to save him, after I was the one who gave him his first needle. I was the one who caused his overdose those months ago. I was the one who caused him to feel guilty over what I did – do – to pay for his survival. I was the one he cried over every night.

And I nearly followed him into death. I probably don’t deserve death. I was the one who caused Niki’s death. I was the one who caused Nakomi- no, no, I’m not touching that one. I messed up, and I still have a debt to pay.

I raise my eyes up at Solchov and look at him as if he’s a stranger. Dark brown hair, combed back. Green eyes that are so much like mine. Laughterlines around his eyes that look completely out of place if you know who he is. Slightly greasy, only slightly overweight. Warm hands. He is just a man, not a demon. In the past few weeks he has kept Marat away from me. Sometimes he’s gentle with me. The way he held me in the bath tub – it isn’t /that/ revulsing anymore. The smell of oranges still makes me gag, but maybe it’s just not that bad. Maybe I can be strong.
At that moment the door opens again and shows a dark-haired nurse that smiles at us both. ”Ah, young lady, you’re awake,” she says with artificial cheer. “We were wondering when you would wake up. How are you feeling?”

“Like arse,” I rasp, echoing Solchov’s words.

“You will need to take it easy for the next few days, but you’re going be just fine,” she says with that same plastic smile on her face. I can see her looking at the needle tracks on my arms and I could almost hear what she thinks, the same things people on the streets thought when they looked at Niki and myself. /Fucking junkies, throwing their lives away./ She is thinking it, and basic politeness and communication training barely cover it up. “You’re really lucky that you have such a great uncle,” she continues. “He’s been with you, waking at your side, ever since you were brought in two days ago.”

“Yeah,” I murmur. /You’re so lucky to have him. He’s all I have, now. It’s either him, or death – either drug-induced, or by Marat’s hands, I suppose. But what do you know of such things, lady?/

Solchov smiles a broad, winning smile. “I’m just happy that she’s awake and back with me,” he says, completely owning the role of loving uncle. I guess he could be; he’s dark-haired and green-eyed like I am and the age gap makes it believable.

“Well, I’ll leave you two alone for a moment. I’m sure you have lots to say to each other. I’ll be right back,” the nurse says. I absently fantasise about punching that demeaning fake smile off her face, but I don’t have the energy to be angry at her opinions and lack of understanding. I don’t have energy for anything anymore.

“Thank you,” Solchov says, still with that charming smile. He turns to me. “Well then, do you have an answer already, my girl? Will you honour your agreement from now on?”

I look up in Alek Solchov’s eyes and stare at the rest of my life. The sight of it is like staring into the sun, but I stare it right in the face. This is it. This is going to be my goddamn life. I deserve it, and I will overcome it. “Yes, I will,” I tell him with a steady voice.

He smiles – a real smile, the most genuine I’ve seen from him yet – and he kisses me softly on the mouth. His lips are warm, too. The smell of oranges surrounds me.

I can do this.