Track 22: Slippery People

“So,” Eliza said as we stood outside the brick perimeter wall to the factory, “is this really going to kill us if we don’t put in the correct codes?”

“According to Andy,” I said, “that’s an option that he doesn’t think is on. We didn’t want people taking things that didn’t belong to them and Andy wanted to test out some autonomous defenses. We honestly didn’t think something this bad would happen, but we decided what the hell. Have multiple layers of security in case of apocalypse. Right now, though, the shaped charges aren’t active, so all that should happen is the cops get called.”

“But you aren’t a hundred percent sure,” Eliza said.

“No, I’m not.” Between that knowledge and my painkillers wearing off, my hands were shaking as I typed in the code. “Hey, hey!” I said as there was a buzzing sound that cause Eliza to jump. “First try!”

The door opened to reveal a long hallway. Mounted on the ceiling was our prototype machinegun set into a prototype automated mount. “Fuckin’ ‘ell, Nate,” Eliza said as she pushed me in my wheelchair down the hall, “Please tell me the damn thing’s human-controlled.”

“Well,” I said, “with Andy, May, and Nari out of the country, and with most of our staff being former military and law enforcement people who signed back up, we couldn’t really have them be remote controlled. Don’t worry, that one isn’t on at this level.”

“Great.” Eliza said. “It’s so nice t’know that at least one death trap isn’t functional.” I decided, at that point, not to tell her about the auto-turret behind us. Or the claymores and C-4 built into the walls. Or the Punji sticks in the grates below us. Only the turret was active anyway.

Before the door swung shut, we heard a soft thump. Eliza turned around. “Oi,” she said. “I think Valkyrie’s ‘ere.”

“Let here in,” I said. “It’ll be good to talk to her before the others get here.”

Eliza mad a grunt of affirmation and opened the door. “Thanks,” I heard Valkyrie say. “I’ve heard things that make me… hesitant about just barging in here.”

“Yeah,” I said, “probably for the best. Let’s just get in so I can set the security to a more appropriate level.”

“Just so you know,” Valkyrie said, walking besides us, “there are several dead Dragon’s Teeth soldiers in the courtyard around the building.”

“I thought they might try and infiltrate the building,” I said. “After all, they did make several attempts to catch me. I think they might want me and one of my engineering partners because we can make better weapons than they can.” Valkyrie raised an eyebrow. “Really,” I said. “They can’t make rifles for shit. Vehicles are a different story. There’s other reasons, but I’m not going to get into them.”

“Maybe we should get the bodies out of the way,” Eliza said.

“Let’s turn off the turrets first,” I said. “Those things are set to motion and they can’t really tell the difference between good guys and innocent bystanders yet.”

“Why are they in a city of almost two hundred thousand?” Valkyrie asked.

“They’re facing inwards,” I said defensively.

“I swear,” Valkyrie said, “one of these days, I’m going to be here to give you an ass whooping.”

“‘E means well,” Eliza said.

“That’s what makes it so frustrating,” Valkyrie said. “With people like Minute Man, you expect them to be pieces of shit-”

“Wait,” I said, “Minute Man’s a piece of shit?” Minute Man was a hero who’d been in the cape scene since the eighties. He’d been the leader of the group by the same name and done the whole save kittens in tree and kiss babies thing for the entire time.

“Yes,” Valkyrie said. “You just have to look for it. Of course, the fucker’s gone to Canada, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. But he’s a piece of shit, and only in it for himself. What’s frustrating are the people who are doing awful shit for others, or seem like they want to be good but it never works out.”

I considered her words as I began to fiddle with the security systems. I wondered if she was, other than me, she was referring to anyone I knew. Eventually, I got the systems tuned to an acceptable level (and discovered that most of the active turrets were out) and Valkyrie was able to fly the bodies to an Army command outpost nearby for disposal and analysis.

When she came back, I said, “So, how are we going to control the murderous criminals once they get their highly advanced firearms? I mean, I think this could be a good idea, but we have to take into consideration that they might be more interested in killing each other or in intimidating civillians than killing Dragon’s Teeth.”

“Could you put in some way of disabling them?” Valkyrie asked.

“No,” I said. “There’s a whole litany of reasons. Like if I could turn off the guns, so could the Dragon’s Teeth, for starters. Or I, or whoever I get to design this magic switch, could make it so that the gun accidentally turns off in the middle of a firefight. In any case, putting in a backdoor or remote off switch defeats the purpose. There’s also how long it would take to design and retool the factory, which is actually something I can’t do unless I get Andy back here. Whatever solution we come up with, it has to be social or political. Either that, or we have to decide that the worst thing they could possibly do will be offset by the thing they’re most likely to do.”

“That is a question really only you can answer,” Valkyrie said. “We’re not hearing anything from the captured areas.”

“Which is pretty disturbing,” Eliza said.

I considered this. If Alma was telling the truth, the Teeth might be under new management soon. Also, the one time I had been behind Dragon’s Teeth lines had been during a test phase. That could mean what happened in Korea wouldn’t happen again. On the other hand, even though I hadn’t encountered any mass graves there, I had only seen two civilians. One had been in the company of UNIX agents. The other had been Nari. Genocide seemed to be a very real possibility.

“Is there a way of distributing them so that they can’t access them until the Teeth show up?” I asked. Then I answered my own question. “No. They move too fast.” I took a deep breath. “The best case explanation for I saw in North Korea was that the DPRK and the Dragon’s Teeth had been supernaturally good at evacuating civilians. I don’t think that explanation is likely.”

An alarm buzzed. “Well,” Valkyrie said, “they’re here.”

“Let me check,” I said, getting out of my wheelchair.

“OI!” Eliza said. “Don’t you fuckin’ get out of that.” She walked over to the monitor. “It’s not just Jen. ‘Parently, all the other fuckin’ reprobates showed up as well and they’re ‘avin’ a chat.”

“So should we bring them in here to kill themselves or let them get it out of their systems?” I asked.

“Don’t even joke about that,” Valkyrie said.

“Sorry,” I said. “You two go bring them in, I’ll go over this stuff some more.” Eliza picked up a Ballpeen on her way out. “Leave that here.” I said.

“No,” she said, pulling out a forty-round magazine she’d taken from somewhere and inserting it into the well in the grip. “I ain’t lettin’ those fuckers shoot one of us ‘cause we weren’t prepared.”

I sighed as Eliza and Valkyrie walked off. As usual, the painkillers weren’t being too effective today. Funnily enough, I hadn’t felt like a piece of steak that had been in the oven too long until after I’d been scooped off that fallow field in whatever bucket had been handy. I looked at the shitty phone I’d salvaged, a budget model from the early two thousands. It was two hours until the next time I could take the super-addictive narcotic that didn’t do anything.

Valkyrie and Eliza brought in the first group. “You should wait until they all get here,” Valkyrie said. “I’ll go out front to buzz them in.”

“This isn’t all of them?” Eliza whispered. I had to agree with her somewhat fearful tone of voice. There were at least fifteen people in the conference area I’d picked out. I consoled myself in that they’d divided themselves into groups of two or three and were too busy regarding each other warily to consider rushing the sample table. I decided then and there that I’d skip the portion of the event where I’d bring the group down to the firing range, partly because I genuinely didn’t feel safe doing that, mostly because we were already halfway to the point where I’d either have to limit range time or get more product.

Something I learned about Massachusetts organized crime was that it seemed to be well-heeled and very white. Most of the people spoke like they were from either the North End, the South End, Worcester, or Russia. There was one group of black people, and two groups of Latino people. They were the only groups that approached friendly, but even I could tell there was a bit of restrained edge to their greetings.

Then the two elephants entered the room. Separated by Valkyrie, and looking like they would kill each other were the representatives from the Jade Empire and the Kagemoto family.

The Kagemoto family probably had the tiniest base in Massachusetts. They were genuine Yakuza and, from what I’d heard, only managed to maintain their pool of hardened gunmen by importing people from Japan. Jen was there, of course, flanked by Hirosama and Kaori Murakami, a husband and wife team of Parahuman enforcers who worked under the names Dokutsu and Tatsu. Jen wore a red Boston Red Sox sweater and blue jeans, while the Murakamis looked as intimidating as usual in their sharp suits and tinted shades. As usual, despite being smaller, Kaori’s burns were more intimidating than her husband’s acne scars.

The Jade Empire was a different story. Three of the four representatives were Asian, which, despite the gang being inspired by the Chinese Triads, was unusual for the group. Most of the people were bored, middle-class suburban kids, low-income people in their twenties, or Brazilian immigrants. Jaime Washington followed this rule. He was one of the few black kids from my hometown and had somehow gotten into the Jade Empire early on and now seemed pretty high up in the hierarchy. Lang and Bao Zi were exceptions. The Lupine brother and sister pair were from China. I’d only heard that they were Lupines as they didn’t have the dog ears like Eliza did, but they had a certain confidence to their movement that indicated powers. Those three people wore green: Bao Zi wore a green waist-length peacoat, black vinyl skirt, high-heeled boots, and green aviator sunglasses, Lang wore a Celtics jersey and matching track pants with long gold chain, and Jaime was wearing a green hoodie opened up to reaveal a Kendrick Lamar t-shirt and baggy jeans.

The fourth Jade Empire member was someone I never thought to see, but should have expected. Mai Lau was a small Asian girl who had been a few years behind me in school. She had somehow come into a large amount of money and, in retrospect, her fortune and business ventures had grown with the rise of the Jade Empire. She was the only one in her party not exchanging murderous looks with the Kagemotos. In fact, she was dressed in an orange Maynard High School tee, jeans, and sneakers. She was even carrying a notebook like she was going to class again. Then she saw that I was there. Her eyes widened in shock as she met mine.

Jen noticed her reaction and began staring from Mai to me and back. Mai noticed this, and her face became more guarded. It was at this point that the rest of the room noticed the new arrivals and the atmosphere somehow became even more tense.

“Alright,” Valkyrie said, “Kagemotos over there, Jade Empire over there.” The places she pointed to were on opposite ends of the room. The two groups made some last attempts at posturing, then moved to their assigned locations. Valkyrie took turns glaring at them until she was satisfied they wouldn’t kill each other, then made her way back to us. “Do you know them?” she asked me under her breath when she arrived.

“Good question,” Eliza said in a neutral tone.

“I went to NIU with Jennifer Kagemoto,” I said. “Mai Lau was from high school, we only knew each other from theater class and a play or two.”

“Is that all?” Valkyrie asked.

“For Mai, yes.” I said. I turned to look Eliza in the eye. “I swear to God, yes.” I turned back to Valkyrie. “Jen, well, you’ve dealt with her. Jen makes everything complicated.” I considered this for a moment. “By the way, why the hell is Mai here?”

“She’s the Jade Emperor,” Valkyrie said. “When Jen killed her father a few weeks ago, she made a grab for Kagemoto territory. When Jen consolidated control, part of her retaliation was to dox Mai. She won’t admit it, but everyone knows Jen did it.”

“I take it that isn’t the first time they’ve fought?” I asked.

“Sort of,” Valkyrie said. “Mai’s been hidden pretty well. I think Jen only knew it a few minutes before the rest of us. Also, Jen hadn’t really had much control over the Kagemotos before she did her takeover. I think things got more intense.”

I sighed and buried my face in my hands. “Jesus fucking Christ, why the hell couldn’t this be easy?” I raised my head and said, “Well, you might as well give your speech.”

Valkyrie considered me with narrowed eyes for a moment. Then she turned around and slammed the pommel of her axe on the floor a few times. A gust of wind blew throughout the room each time the pommel hit. “Everyone!” she said. “I know each and every one of you are, to some extent, in this for money. We all know that there’s a new and very disruptive force that wants to take over pretty much everything. I thought, before I made my proposition, you’d want to hear from one of the few people with first-hand knowledge of them.” She stepped back and gestured to me.

 

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