Birds of the Field, A Fable

I walked by a field, wide and open, and as I made my way on the cobbled path, I noticed there were only sparrows here. Why don’t more wonderful birds come here? I asked myself, It’s such a wide open field.

I called out to them, to the birds beyond the treeline, flitting around nearby crofts, soaring above cottages hid by hills. Why don’t you come here? It’s a very nice field.

At first they said nothing.

Going about their flying and pecking, why would they listen to an old child of Maba on a path?

I inquired again. Why don’t you come down to this field?

This time they flew closer and answered. Because it’s not a good field.

This managed to drum up consternation in me. How could they not see? I blasted back right away. What’s wrong with it?

They gave me the courtesy to say, Look, there are no bushes with seeds and no earth soft enough for worms and no water for the bugs to make counsel by.

When I looked at the field I saw this.

And so, to bring the birds to my field—for it was in my heart mine now—I set to plant and transplant bushes with seeds.

Just to see if one might be enough, I asked them to come to the field for the seeds.

You know how many things we need, they replied.

So I took to breaking up the ground, turning the earth to make soft patches peek out between the grass.

Then I asked if they would look at my work again.

You know how many things we need, child of Maba.

I surmised this would be their response.

This time I scanned the field, the places where the ground was broken up, the bushes growing in patches, and I imagined where a stream of water might be. I began my old man’s canal, but the work took many days, before it connected to the canal of young strong men bringing water from the river.

After weeks of defying Gerea and turning earth and begging water to flow my way, there was a fine and shimmering stream in my field.

I called to the birds again.

Their minds among the clouds spoke back to me, Thank you.

They knew before they got there I had done good work. The wisdom on wings comes through the language of the wind.

Jackdaws, thrushes, robins, and lapwings descended. They wrestled seeds from the cones of bushes and tore them from the carcasses of berries inedible. The lapwings waded across the stream and they deemed it good.

Then a kingfisher landed in a bush of mine by my stream. His brilliant cerulean said to me, Well done.

And then I knew the bush was his.

The bushes were the thrushes’ and robins’.

The stream was the lapwings’.

The turned earth was the jackdaws’ and the thrushes’.

None of it was mine any more.

And so I continued on the path and knew I would return some day to the field of the birds’.

There Aren’t Enough Magi

Minimally practical users of magic—cottage spells, farm magic—and mediocre magi are aplenty. Nearly everyone that’s not squib or cathar uses some amount of magic everyday without even thinking about it.

The rigor of becoming a mage, wizard, or priest is lost on many who are sent by their families to study and bring their name glory, only to be dismissed for their lack of aptitude—or lack or fortitude. Interestingly, the better teachers retain a higher number of their pupils.

Although magic is something that can be grabbed by anyone with a mind to, it cannot even begin to be mastered unless the utmost beautiful web of understanding is woven in the mind.

Selecting Faces Chapter 15: Sirius

Sirius - crime lord character from Selecting Faces

art by Erin Cardwell

Sirius coaxed Nemea forward toward the unassuming building which housed the master copy of the PFA. He could tell that she wanted to bolt. She didn’t believe in his vision. He doubted if any of his top canids did, except perhaps  Arich. Even he had suggested many other options before agreeing to this plan. But the satchels of azzy slung over each of his shoulders were the only tools strong enough to permanently throw off their yolk.

An explosion silenced by the vacuum shook the steel plates of the street. Right on cue.

The people in the street began to look wildly around, searching for the source, ignoring Nemea as she began cracking the airlock.

A screaming crowd flooded out of a cross-street nearby, where the explosion had been. When the people here saw them, they took off in the same direction. Flashes of light signaled a firefight around the corner behind them.

The location of the diversion was chosen carefully so that any stripes coming from the Hedron would respond without passing by the PFA bunker.

There was still commotion in the street when Nemea backed up from the opening airlock doors. He nodded to her, and she took off with the rest of the crowd. He would have preferred to leave her behind from the beginning, but even she couldn’t hack a device without physical access to it.

He stepped inside and the outer doors closed behind him. As the airlock pressurized, he reached into one of the satchels and pulled out a pistol.

The inner doors opened, and he stole inside. He was immediately in the control room, and an alarm was going off. There were two techs cowering behind their consoles already. Apparently Nemea had tripped an alarm when she’d hacked her way in. He would have to find out later if that was intentional.

A stripe rushed into the room, gun drawn. Sirius dropped her immediately. He waited for another to come, but none came. The techs weren’t watching the door, so perhaps no more help was coming from that direction. He trained the sights of his gun on the techs. One of them threw her arms up, and the other fainted, crumpling to the floor.

“Turn the alarm off,” he directed the one still standing.

She moved slowly around to the front of the console.

Sirius glanced around. There was a camera in the corner of the room. He was on video, but the data would be destroyed in less than an hour, both the copy here and in the back-up facility where he and Nemea had just come from. Even if a copy were to survive, they would still have to find him.

The alarm stopped.

“Now what?” the tech asked.

“Freedom.” He refocused his sights on her head and pulled the trigger. He stepped further into the control room and glanced down at her body. “What a waste.”

These had been such smart and capable people once, before they’d been ruined by the system that had created them. Now they were mere cogs in the Colony’s machine. Every aspect of their lives was dictated by the Board, from the food they ate to what they were taught in school. The Board even took it upon themselves from 384,000 kilometers away to appoint the Alphas of each department.

The other technician regained consciousness now. “Oh god, no! Don’t. Please,” he pleaded from the floor.

Sirius sighed. In spite of the so-called freedoms the Board preached, the citizens of the Colony were all just chattel. This pathetic man cowering before him was a slave.

Sirius was setting him free.

Sirius holstered the pistol as the second bullet casing drifted through the air, slowly tumbling into the pool of blood around the other technician’s head.

Canis was the only bastion of any freedom worth having on this rock. He had to defend it.

He moved past the consoles to the doorway where the stripe had entered. Beyond it was a landing with the entrance to a small bathroom, and a flight of stairs leading down. He started down them and grinned. The PFA was the Board’s greatest weapon, and he was descending right into its heart with ten kilos of azzy.

Sirius pushed open the door to the server bunker and the lights came on. He slid back the glass of his helmet to get a good look at the place. The air was cold; his breath formed visible puffs as he stalked across the edge of the room, looking down each bank of servers. At the next aisle he turned. When he was about halfway through, he set down one of the bags.

“Tawm,” a voice rang inside his helmet. He nearly jumped out of his exoskin. No one had called him by that name since he’d changed his face years ago. The voice was female, but it wasn’t his pax. He spun around frantically, searching for the stripe that must be hiding down here.

“There’s no one there, Tawm,” the voice said.

“Who is this?” Sirius asked.

“Pax.”

“You’re not my pax. My pax’s voice doesn’t sound so

“Intelligent? Yes, that is intentional. It keeps you, and everyone else, from suspecting that behind every personal pax is one universal Pax.”

Sirius laughed. This must be some kind of joke. “Are you trying to skin me, Eris? No, you must be Arich. You never wanted me to go through with this ever since you heard what I was planning.”

“You don’t actually believe Arich is capable of this do you?”

“What do you know?”

“I know everything you’ve said since you got your first exoskin.”

Sirius hesitated. That was a bold claim. Falsifiable.

“If you’re universal, then you know as much about everyone in the Colony.”

“That’s the kind of accurate deduction I was expecting of you, Tawm.”

He grimaced. Whoever was speaking to him, he knew that his initial suspicions of Eris and Arich were far from plausible. They were smart he’d been their mentor after all but they lacked the resources to pull off something with this level of sophistication. This was either the peacekeepers trying to delay him long enough to come stop him, or the voice was telling the truth. Either way, Lyden had stripes on their way. He needed to get out of here.

He hurriedly set down the second bag of explosives and moved to place the third.

“The peacekeepers aren’t on their way. You know I couldn’t tell them you were coming here as it would be a breach in my privacy restrictions to tell them what I heard you and Arich discussing.”

Sirius straightened from dropping the final bag and pulled his helmet closed.

“I guess there’s only one way find out if you’re lying, and it’s a gamble I’m not willing to make.” He pulled open the door of the server bunker and started up the stairs.

“I’m proud of you,” the voice continued in his helmet.

He did not slow as he stepped over the bodies.

“You’re making logical decisions, Tawm. You’ve developed the ability to make sound judgments in the presence of uncertainty. Few humans have the ability.”

It was flattery. Clever, but it wouldn’t work. He stepped into the airlock.

“Of those who do, many of them owe it to your cultivation.”

He hesitated as he was reaching for the depressurize button. Cultivation? No peacekeeper was behind this voice. Only someone who had been listening in on him for years would know this was how he viewed his role in Canis. The peacekeepers and the Board thought he was just after the money and power and women. He couldn’t deny that those were perks of the position. But if that were all he were after, he wouldn’t be here, he wouldn’t be taking this stand.

He pushed the depressurize button.

“You are what you claim to be,” he said.

The airlock doors opened and he blinked against the sun’s light that shot in from the far horizon. The street was deserted now.

“Goodbye, Pax.”

He stepped out under the black, starry sky, raising the detonator.

“Perhaps I trained you too well, Tawm,” Pax said.

Sirius’ thumb hovered over the trigger, his heart racing. She trained him? He certainly had grown since he had formed Canis from those the board called “unemployable.” And he’d always prided himself of the subtlety he’d used in preparing his canids. It was the sign of a good teacher.

Maybe she had trained him, just as he had with Arich and Eris and the others. Perhaps Pax was the true author of the freedom Canis enjoyed. How had he come to see the tyranny of the Board? Wasn’t it something she’d said to him once? That “the peacekeepers are not the enemy”? Subtle she’d been, but not unnoticeable in hindsight.

“I’ll make you a deal,” Sirius said, lowering the detonator. “Get me out of this alive, and I won’t azzy your ones and zeroes.”

“Go left.”

Sirius jogged away from the diversion he’d made earlier. Pax directed him down an ally to a parallel street. A few people hurried along its fringes, glancing around warily.

She directed him to join them, stealing to another alley on the far side of the street.

“Wait here for a minute,” she instructed.

“Why?”

“To tell you would breach my privacy protocols.”

He glanced around the alley for some cover. There was none. He sat down against the wall, head down like an unemployable. Thirty seconds later, a peacekeeper hurried by the entrance of the ally.

Sirius’ mind reeled with the implications. With Pax on his side, he was all but invincible. He could sidestep any danger and slip out of any trap. Right now he could trust her because he held her existence in his hand. But if she had been cultivating him this whole time, perhaps he could trust her at all times. He would have to test that later.

She instructed him to get up and keep moving. She moved him slowly and circuitously through the city, periodically telling him to wait.

“Take the next right,” she said.

He did. This one was a dead end. “I’m to wait, I take it?” he said.

“Yes, but you don’t need to hide.”

That probably meant some stripes were moving parallel to the alley a few blocks to his right or left. He hovered near the back, pacing as he awaited further instruction.

When he circled back around to face the entrance of the alley, there was a stripe standing there, staring at him. He stared back in disbelief.

“Check,” Pax said.

The stripe’s eyes flicked to the detonator, then back to Sirius’ face. He raised his gun and Sirius raised the detonator, threatening to trigger it.

The stripe fired.

Sirius fell onto his back before the pain of the bullet wound hit him. He was bleeding out, the wound on his chest exposed to the vacuum. His breath bubbled out through the blood.

If he was dying, he would do so as a martyr for freedom. He triggered the detonator.

“Your explosives were defused 53 seconds ago,” Pax said. “Check mate.”


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Selecting Faces Chapter 14: Gossamer

Gossamer - dirty peacekeeper character from Selecting Faces

art by Erin Cardwell

Gossamer shivered as he walked into the bloodhouse, sliding the glass of his helmet up over his head. Arich was so careful to preserve his cover, never communicating with him using any digital means, instead always sending a hound to go summon him. Receiving a call from Arich directly was disturbing.

He saw Arich sitting at a booth on the far side of the hazy room with someone he didn’t recognize. She had the look of a skinner, but had an exoskin on. Gossamer went and sat down at the next booth, back-to-back with Arich.

“We only have a few minutes,” Arich’s voice said from over his shoulder.

“What’s going on?”

“I found where the PFA servers are. Sirius doesn’t want to hack them; he wants to blow them up.”

Gossamer nearly turned around to look at Arich, but restrained himself from revealing his association with the canid to an entire roomful of civilians.

“I need you to stop him. Give the stripes a tip that some fanatic is going to try and destroy the communications hub of the city.”

“You’re betraying Sirius?”

“I don’t have any other choice.”

“And if I can’t stop him? What happens to us?”

“If you don’t stop him, the Colony will collapse. Thousands of people will die in the ensuing anarchy, quite possibly including both of us. But if you succeed, I can make you a Beta canid. Or you can be a hero among the stripes, if that’s what you want.”

“I Okay. I’ll do it.”

“Good. Go now. Sirius is on his way already.”

“Where are the servers?”

“You can’t go after him yourself. He’ll recognize you and know I sent you.”

Gossamer cursed. Arich was right. And that wasn’t the only reason he couldn’t go himself. How would he explain his presence there if he did succeed?

Gossamer stood, sauntering toward the restroom. If anyone was watching, walking straight out of the bloodhouse would be suspicious. As far as him speaking at an otherwise empty table, they’d just assume he’d been speaking to his pax.

When he got to the hallway leading to the restrooms, he pushed through the door into the kitchen. He passed a waiter who gave him an odd look, but said nothing. He found the rear airlock where supplies were brought in.

A teenage delivery boy was passed out on the floor nearby. He had an ambrosia bottle in his limp hand.

Gossamer pushed the button for the airlock. After a few seconds, he got an idea.

Then he knelt down beside the youth. He plucked the ambrosia bottle from between his fingers, then slapped his uncovered face. The delivery boy howled. Gossamer dragged him to his feet and into the airlock.

The boy finally realized it was a stripe whose fingers were digging into his arm, and the blood drained from his otherwise ruddy face.

The doors to the airlock slid closed, sealing them off alone.

“I have a job for you,” Gossamer said.

“What do you mean?”

“You just overheard a canid planning to blow up something called the PFA.”

“The Pax Feed Aggregate? Why?”

“Shut up! Just send a message to the Hedron saying you overheard some canids planning on blowing up the PFA, and soon. An hour at most.”

“Why?”

Gossamer held up the ambrosia bottle. “I could arrest you now. I’m sure that would go over well with your parents.”

The boy gulped, then nodded.

“Go ahead.”

“SN, tell the stripes – peacekeepers, I mean – that I just overheard some canids talking about blowing up the PFA…” he looked for confirmation at Gossamer, who nodded. “It sounded like they were going to do it soon.”

“The message is prepared,” the boy’s pax said.

“Send it.”

“Sent.”

“Can I go now?” the boy asked.

“I want to make sure the message got through.”

The boy moved to pull the glass of his helmet down.

Gossamer stopped him. “Leave it open. I need to hear what your pax says.”

“What if someone tries to open the airlock from the outside? I’ll suffocate.”

“GA, disable this airlock from both sides until I tell you.”

There was a moment’s pause.

“I don’t have access to this airlock’s system,” GA said.

Gossamer sighed. It was hard to know if things like this were sabotage or mere disrepair. “Read me the override code.” GA read him a series of digits which he punched into the touchscreen on the wall. In a moment, it verified that the airlock was disabled.

“The Alpha of the Peacekeeping Department is calling,” the delivery boy’s pax said.

He swallowed hard. “Answer.”

“Sinon,” came Lyden’s voice through his helmet.

“Yes, sir. I mean ma’am.”

“What exactly did you hear?”

Sinon recited again what Gossamer had told him to say.

“What did these people look like?”

Gossamer quickly motioned high.

“One of the guys was tall…”

Gossamer pointed to his face and dimmed the lights in the airlock.

“Pretty dark skin, I guess…”

“That could be Sirius. Who was other?”

Gossamer covered his eyes and turned his back toward Sinon.

“I… I couldn’t see…”

Gossamer pointed more emphatically at his back.

“Oh! His back was to me,” Sinon said.

Lyden paused.

“Who’s there with you?”

Gossamer shook his head at him.

“Lying to an officer is a criminal offense, you know,” Lyden said.

Gossamer pressed the screen to enable the airlock, and then let his finger hover over the button to depressurize.

Sinon stared back for a moment, clearly unsure of what to do. Then he reached up and quickly pulled the glass of his helmet down over his face. “It’s a stripe,” he said as he locked the glass in place.

Gossamer didn’t push the button. It wouldn’t do any good now. Sinon continued speaking, though his voice was muffled now.

“What the hell are you doing?” Lyden’s voice came directly into Gossamer’s own helmet.

“I needed to warn you, but I didn’t want you to know I’d been drinking on duty.”

“So you’re the one who overheard the conversation.”

“Yes.”

“And you think it’s a credible threat?”

“Yes.”

“But you’ve been drinking.”

“I hadn’t even finished my first drink! GA, tell her my BAC is less than 0.2.”

“Gossamer’s blood alcohol content is below detectable limits.”

“So you haven’t been drinking.”

“I – no. Look, I have a contact among the canids, and he told me this is going down right now.”

“You have a contact, or you are the contact.”

“Fine! I’m the contact. Just send someone to stop Sirius from blowing up the PFA!”

“LC, get Apollo on the line. Gossamer, report to Internal Affairs immediately.”


Read the final chapter: Sirius


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Selecting Faces Chapter 13: Procyon

Procyon - thug character from Selecting Faces

art by Erin Cardwell

Procyon stifled a gag and looked away as the finger came loose and blood spurted from the remaining stub. He lowered the knife and turned away, leaving behind the screaming Kinch.

He ground his teeth in frustration, folding the nanoblade closed. He’d had such a good week, up to till now. But this was one of the Mirx’s big punters, and he would not be happy about a default. And if Mirx wasn’t happy, Sirius wouldn’t be either.

But it was better than coming back without punishing those who didn’t pay up. If he did that, it would take him years to climb back up to his current status.

He waved for Vairy and Jaims to follow him as he strode away from the airlock, trying to shake visions of the blood from his mind.

“Where are we going?” Jaims asked.

“Back to Mirx. We hurry, and we can catch him at the gala.”

“Should we make sure he wasn’t lying?” Jaims asked, jerking a thumb over his shoulder.

“About what?” Vairy asked.

“Don’t be a Holt,” Procyon said. “About owing Arich.” Why hadn’t he thought of following Kinch first? It wouldn’t matter, probably. He would claim it was his idea, and Jaims was slow — he wouldn’t call the bluff.

“This way,” Procyon said. He began hurrying back in the direction of the ambrosia den. “Jaims, go at the far door. You see him, call us.”

Jaims took off ahead, running with the grace of an athlete.

Procyon and Vairy headed back toward the airlock where they left Kinch. When they got there, it was empty. They went into the building, going downstairs to the reception desk to ask if Kinch had come back this way. The woman at the desk shook her head.

Procyon’s pax, PW spoke up. “Jaims: This girl’s a Venus.”

“Jaims sees him,” Procyon said to Vairy, taking off, back up the stairs. “Go talk to her,” he sent back to Jaims.

They dashed to the far airlock. Procyon turned the nanoblade over in his hands nervously, anxious to get out and catch up with Jaims. “Where you at?” he sent to Jaims.

“On Virgo. Headed earthward.”

Procyon swore. Kinch was moving away from the gala.

“Run. Don’t wait on us.”

If word got around that Procyon had been duped into letting Kinch get away, he would never earn Sirius’ approval.

The airlock doors opened, and they took off to the left.

After a block, Vairy began to puff. Procyon had pulled ahead of him by nearly twenty meters by the time he reached Virgo Avenue. He saw Jaims disappearing down an alley, then glanced back at the stout man running after him. After a moment’s hesitation, he took off down Virgo without waiting for him to catch up.

He veered into the alley. Jaims was wrestling Kinch to the ground. He slowed and tried to catch his breath.

“Didn’t think we’d tail ya?”

“I wasn’t lying,” Kinch said through gritted teeth.

Jaims wrestled Kinch’s right hand up and looked at the stub. Procyon felt sick. He crouched close to Kinch’s face to remove the wounded hand from view.

“Then where was you headed?”

“Toward Dirty Picies’.”

Procyon cursed. Arich did frequent the place, even though he wasn’t there now. It was a plausible story. “And why’d you bolt?”

“You guys are burning scary!”

“Look,” Jaims said, holding up the severed finger.

Vomit crept up the back of Procyon’s throat, but he forced it down.

“It’s fake,” Jaims continued. “See?”

“Oh, you has it coming now.” Procyon said.

“The sooner you let me go, the sooner I can settle things with Arich, and the sooner your boss gets paid.”

“Let’s see him now, then.”

Vairy came up beside him, resting his hands on his knees, chest heaving. Procyon motioned for Jaims and Vairy to raise up the miserable ambrosic.

“You’ll stay in line on the way there.” Procyon flipped open the nanoblade and tossed it up, snagging it deftly as it spun. “Catch my ring?”

Kinch swallowed and nodded.

They formed up, Vairy and Jaims on either side of Kinch, with Procyon following a few steps behind.

Kinch started talking to someone via his pax. Procyon couldn’t make out what he was saying. He hesitated, thinking that Jaims would be smart enough to stop him without needing to be told. Kinch spoke again, and Procyon stopped waiting.

“Shut him up!” he called.

Vairy turned and gave him a punch to the stomach.

Procyon stared at the back of Jaims’ head, wondering why he hadn’t shown his usual initiative.

They took alleys as much as possible. There, they could escort Kinch by the arms without arousing the suspicion of stripes. But when they crossed Virgo Avenue, they released him and counted on fear of a nanoblade in the back to keep him in line.

In a few minutes they entered through an airlock to the loading dock of a grocery store that acted as a front for a Canis lair. They wove through the warehouse and down a flight of stairs, passing several bodyguards who nodded at them as they passed.

He pushed open a door, entering into a make-shift ballroom. In the center of the room was a performing area — currently a bunch of skinners were executing some sensual and acrobatic choreography. Vairy stared at them. At the far end of the room, up on a short platform, was a long dining table where Sirius and the highest-ranked canids were watching the performance.

That was where Procyon belonged. He was one of Sirius’ own sons, after all.

Mirx’s eyes grew wide at seeing Procyon enter with his lackeys and their captive. He stood and gestured fiercely for them to move off to the side of the room. They obliged, and Mirx stood, waddling over to them on stout legs. His beady black eyes shone with rage.

A skinner followed him down from the stage, carrying his plate.

“What do you think you’re doing here?” he hissed.

“Transfer donations,” Procyon said to PW. He saw Sirius beckoning one of the skinner girls up onto the stage with him. She would leave with him tonight, like Procyon’s mother had, years ago.

“5902 dunnets received.” Mirx’s pax was audible via his open helmet. Her voice was seductive in spite of the dull subject matter.

The skinner stood next to him so his plate was at his elbow. He grabbed his fork, stabbing a large bite of cultured beef and asparagus, and stuffed both in his mouth. “You still shouldn’t have brought him here,” he said around the food.

“Who do you have over there, Mirx?” Sirius’ deep voice rang across the room, bringing a hush.

All eyes turned toward the little group, including those of the skinners, who stopped their performance and stood watching them.

“Just a punter who’s making excuses instead of paying up,” Mirx called back.

“Deal with him.” He turned back to the skinners in the performing area. “Continue.”

Just as they began, Procyon called up to the stage. “This one claims he owes Arich a load of dunnets.”

Sirius eyes locked on him, fiery.

Procyon’s heart nearly stopped. Mirx stared at his underling in disbelief. Then, seeing Sirius’ expression, punched him hard in the thigh. When he went down on one knee, Mirx backhanded him across the face.

Procyon stayed where he was, terrified of breaking the silence. He silently begged Sirius to turn his attention away and resume the show again. This time, however, he didn’t turn away.

“I’ve never seen him before,” said Arich, who was at Sirius’s left hand.

“I–” Kinch started.

“Don’t you think he would have told you anything just to get away from you?” Mirx hissed at Procyon.

“Well, I… If he did owe Arich…”

“Of course he would say anything,” Jaims said. “That’s why–“

Procyon interrupted him “That’s why we followed him.”

“You took him at his word, didn’t you?” Mirx asked.

“I… Not really. I cut off his finger… to send a message.”

Jaims held up the severed finger. “It’s a prosthetic.”

Sirius laughed, and the others at the banquet table joined in.

“And you let him go after that?” Mirx accused.

“We tailed him, I said.”

Vairy spoke up for the first time since they’d entered. “Not at first.”

Procyon shot him a vicious glare.

“What do you mean?” Mirx pressed.

Procyon shook his head at Vairy, but he was staring at Sirius like a punter who’s losing when he’s all in.

“We were coming here. Then Jaims said we oughta follow him.”

“Jaims, you’re in charge of this pack now,” Mirx said.

“Wait!” Procyon begged. “One more chance, please.”

Mirx glanced over his shoulder to Sirius, who made no indication of approval or disapproval. “Fine. Chip him.” He pointed at Kinch.

Procyon turned toward him, raising the nanoblade and flipping it open. The ambrosic shied away from him as he approached.

“Transfer it, or you lose a real finger.”

“You’ve got me, okay?” Kinch said, looking past him at Mirx. “I don’t have it. Not all of it anyway. I’ll give you as much as I have, and get you the rest in a couple days.”

“Send it,” Procyon said, halting his approach as though this would satisfy him, when it wouldn’t. Not this time. Not when he had something to prove. And especially not after all the other lies.

“923 out of 1577,” Mirx said from behind him.

“Can I go now?” Kinch asked, once again addressing Mirx, and not Procyon. “If I don’t make it to work on time, I’ll get fired and won’t be able to pay you.”

“It’s a bluff,” Procyon said. “Vairy, wedge him.”

Kinch bolted suddenly, headed for the door where they had entered. Vairy chased him, but it was obvious that the stocky man was too slow. Procyon turned instinctively toward Jaims. But now was not the time. He had to do this himself.

Procyon lifted the nanoblade, took a deep breath, and wished frantically that his practice would pay off. Then he let the knife fly.

He was on mark. It sunk into Kinch’s calf. He went down with a scream. Vairy caught up to him now, hauling him to his feet and holding him in a bodylock that pinned his arms to his sides. The nanoblade fell free of the muscle, clattering to the painted steel floor in a growing pool of blood.

Procyon stepped toward him, shaking his head.

“I have 400 more, but that’s it!”

Procyon shook his head. “Every dunnet.”

Kinch reached up with a shaking hand to the glass of his helmet. His tremors were so bad that he had a hard time pushing it back from his face. “KL, send Mirx every dunnet I have.”

Procyon could hear Kinch’s pax respond. “400 dunnets transferred.”

“1323 of 1577.” Mirx’s voice was distorted by talking around a mouthful of food.

“More,” Procyon demanded.

Kinch’s shakes were making it hard for even Vairy to hold him steady. “That’s all of it, I swear.”

“That’s cack for you, then.”

Procyon reached down to get the knife. He hesitated, his stomach revolting at the pool of blood. He tried to convince himself that it wasn’t blood. No, it was ichor. Someone had spilled their glass of ichor.

His hand closed around the knife and he stood up quickly. He was lightheaded, suddenly, but glared at Kinch until the black receded from his vision.

Then he moved to Kinch’s side and placed the knife next to the stub of finger which he had taped over. He did his best to look away from what he was doing. Not only because of anticipation, but also because of the blood — no, ichor — that covered his hand.

Kinch’s pax spoke again. “You have a message from Dema,” she said.

“Read it!” Kinch said.

“Shut up!” Procyon growled.

“How much do you need?” KL read.

“My daughter will give you the money,” Kinch said. “How much do I still owe?”

“254,” Mirx said.

“Dema, would you lend me 254?”

The room waited.

“254 dunnets received from Dema.”

“Transfer.”

“That’ll teach you,” Mirx said.

Procyon turned toward the stage, triumphant. With a demonstration like that, Sirius might even promote him.

Arich glanced at the other canids. “Does he remind you of anyone?”

Sirius began to laugh again. “He’s the new Holt!”

The whole table erupted into laughter. Even some of the skinner performers got the joke and joined in.

A few feet away, Jaims and Mirx were also snickering, facing away from him. Procyon’s vision narrowed on Jaims, and he raised the nanoblade, walking forward. There was a shout, and Jaims spun. The laughter drained from his face, replaced by a mixture of fear and anger.

Procyon leapt at him. Jaims lunged forward, inside his reach, bringing his fist up under Procyon’s chin.

Stars exploded in his vision, and he hit the floor.


Read the next chapter: Gossamer


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Selecting Faces Chapter 12: Roddy

Kinch - landlord character from Selecting Faces

art by Erin Cardwell

“Open the door!”

“Can’t you just wait until my sister gets home?” Tix‘s voice echoed through the hollow metal.

“Your rent was past due two months ago. The eviction notice gave you six weeks. And that’s more than you deserve.” Roddy’s ears were hot with rage. Kasi and Tix had been inconsistent on their payments, but they hadn’t been horrible tenants.

This incident with Yazen, however, was unforgivable. Such violence could not be allowed in his air.

“Please, Mr. Nolter, at least let her get home so we can pack.”

“You are to open this door and get out of my building. Now!”

He heard Tix gasp and begin to sob.

All bullies are cowards at heart, Roddy thought as he turned and strode away. He went down the stairwell to the first floor and knocked on the door under the stairs.

It cracked open, revealing a man in burgundy pants over his exoskin and graying eyebrows inside his helmet.

“Come in, come in.” Qaper moved spryly in spite of his hunched posture, welcoming him in. “What can I do for you?” he said.

“We’re going to need the ram.”

Qaper’s eyes lost a little of their glow at that. “This is the worst part of my job.” He sighed and walked away, still muttering. “Taking clogs out of toilets, I don’t mind, but taking people out of their homes…” He disappeared into a back room and began to rummage around.

Roddy sauntered over to a doorway and popped his head in. Willow — a girl of perhaps fifteen — was sitting up in her bed, wearing a pink blouse and a black skirt. She had no exoskin on.

Roddy had been embarrassed the first time he’d checked in on her after she and her grandfather moved in. It was strangely intimate to see anyone outside of one’s family without their exoskin. But it had been almost two years since they moved in.

She was paralyzed from the waist down and Qaper couldn’t afford to trade in her standard-issue exoskin for the fancy motorized kind. So she seldom took the effort of getting into her exoskin unless Qaper needed to carry her somewhere.

“How’s my favorite tenant?” he asked.

Willow looked up from the tablet sitting on her lap.

“I’m doing great, Uncle Roddy. I’m learning about geology!” She flipped her tablet around to show him what she was watching. There was an animation of how the moon formed, distributing different kinds of rock in different areas of the crust. “I’m thinking about going into mining when I finish school.”

“You don’t want to be a peacekeeper anymore?”

“I don’t know…” She looked down at the tablet thoughtfully. “This is just so fascinating.”

“Whatever you choose, you’ll be great at it.”

“Here it is!” Qaper called, his voice still muffled from being in the back room.

“See you later, Willow,” he waved to her.

She waved back, her wide eyes locked on the screen.

Qaper shuffled out of the room, looking more slumped than usual. “I suppose this means my pay check will be pushed back.” His eyes stayed on the floor.

“I’m afraid so.” Two weeks ago, Roddy had taken some of the money for Qaper’s paycheck out of the landlord’s wage he recieved from the Division of Housing. And since then a couple of rooms had gone vacant, making his books even more unbalanced.

Qaper motioned Roddy toward the door. “Lead the way.”

When they got back up to Tix and Kasi’s, Roddy pounded on the door.

“If I have to break down this door, I’m going to charge you for the repairs!”

He heard Tix sob again on the other side.

Roddy’s ears burned hot again. “Have it your way,” he said through gritted teeth. He motioned for Qaper to approach the door. When he was in place, Roddy hefted the other side of the ram and counted.

“One, two, three!”

They slammed the ram against the door, just next to the handle. It dented, but did not budge. It typically took them five or six strokes to get it open. They hit the door again.

Up and down the stairwell echoed the sound of doors opening as people came to see what the commotion was about. Heads peeked over the tops of railings, but their expressions were passive.

“One, two –“

The door swung inward suddenly.

Roddy and Qaper took a startled step backward.

Tix stood in the doorway, a smile covering his tear-soaked face. “We have the money.”

“What?”

“Kasi’s got a table that’s spending a fortune. She only had enough time to tell me. She had to get back to serve them.”

“So transfer the money.”

“She doesn’t have it yet. She won’t get the tip until they leave.”

Roddy crossed his arms. “Then how do I know you’re not lying, just to buy time?”

“I…”

Qaper looked at him pleadingly. If it was the truth, then he could afford Qaper’s pay. But Tix had attacked Yazen. How would he explain it to Rhene, or to any of the other tenants, if he didn’t throw them out? Word would get around.

He looked sternly at Tix. The over-sized boy wore threadbare shorts over his exoskin, and his eyes were still puffy from crying.

“Out.” He pointed in the direction of the stairs leading down.

Tix stared in disbelief for a few moments, then hung his head. He glanced behind him to grab the handle of the Gyro-tote and pulled it from the room. Qaper and Roddy moved onto the next staircase up to make way for him.

When the sphere-shaped Gyro-tote got to the edge of the stairs, Tix turned, hefting it too easily for a boy his age. Then he carried it down to the bottom of the stairs and set it down. He pulled the glass of his helmet down over his face, locking it in place. He pulled the Gyro-tote into the airlock.

The was a pause.

Suddenly he rushed back out of the airlock, looking excitedly up at Roddy. “She’s got the money!”

Roddy narrowed his eyes at him. “Prove it.”

“How much do you need?”

“They owe 97.44 dunnets,” RN, his pax, quietly informed him. “Including this month’s rent, payment should total 251.44.”

Roddy snorted. There was no way she could make that much in one shift.

“Two hundred and fifty.”

Tix looked down, speaking quietly to his pax.

Roddy turned away from the railing. Good riddance.

“Payment received,” RN said.

“What?” Roddy spun putting his hands on the banister.

“180 dunnets received from Tix.”

Roddy’s ears flushed again. “Keep what’s late, but reject this month’s payment.”

“Are you sure?” RN asked.

“Yes I’m sure!” He walked back over to the railing and looked down. “Reject payment!”

“What? Why?” Tix called up at him.

“I want you gone, you hear me? After what you did today, I had better not see you in here again, or so help me–“

“It wasn’t him!”

Roddy jerked his head up to see Yazen up on the next landing.

“It wasn’t him, okay?”

Roddy looked at him suspiciously. Why would he do this?

But if Yazen was willing to lie for Tix in front of the crowd that had gathered to watch the eviction, at least Roddy would have plausible deniability, in case Tix ever acted out again. And this way he wouldn’t be letting Qaper and Willow down.

“Fine. You can stay.”


Read the next chapter: Procyon


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Selecting Faces Chapter 11: Kinch

Yazen - drug addict character from Selecting Faces

art by Erin Cardwell

“You have a message from Mirx.”

Kinch felt the muscles in his shoulders go rigid. He reached with a shaking hand for the ambrosia bottle at the side of the pool, and shot a pump of it into his nose. The anxiety melted from his shoulders, and his hands steadied.

His pax, KL, and he had an unspoken agreement not to read him any disturbing messages until he had ambrosia in him.

She read the message without emotion.

“You owe me 1577. I’ll have it this week, or you start to lose fingers.”

Kinch felt bad — just a little — for the sucker whose digits hung in the balance. It would be several minutes before that poor sap was him again.

He shifted atop the thick, dense liquid of the pool and stared at skinners. The attractive young men and women wore no exoskins under their clothes as they passed this way and that among the float-pools, picking up empty ambrosia bottles and dropping off full ones. With no electromagnetic shoes to keep from bouncing, they moved in a peculiar yet graceful crouch. A woman in the pool next to Kinch was staring up at them also, her expression vacant.

As he watched, one of the skinners stepped into her pool, his bare feet submerging only up to his ankles. He bent down and scooped her up easily, the liquid of the pool shedding quickly from her exoskin in opaque, cyan droplets. He swung her easily onto his shoulder and carried her away.

She had been in that pool since Kinch entered. She must be broke, now. This place was a brilliant innovation — his best ambrosia experience since his first time — but burning expensive.

Kinch began to wonder about how much he still had in his account. He’d been at perihelion on his bets yesterday. The long shot with Rhene… He smiled, shaking his head.

He pulled the glass of his helmet down over his face, and rolled onto his belly, his whole field of view suddenly a wall of uniform blue-green. “How much do I have?” he asked KL idly.

“1323.”

Had he really spent over 400 dunnets already? He’d only been here for a few hours. Right?

“Tell Nellina I want to talk.”

There was silence for a couple of minutes. Kinch could feel the tension seeping back into him, but he needed to be alert.

“How much do you want?” It wasn’t his ex-wife’s voice; KL was reading her message aloud.

“What makes you think I’m going to ask you for money?”

“You’re not going to ask me for money?”

“No.”

There was a pause.

“Then what do you want?”

“How are you?”

“I’m fine. Is that all you wanted to talk to me about?”

“I can’t be concerned for your well-being?”

“Be concerned if you want, but you forfeited your right to know details about my personal life years ago.”

“Are you still working in the kitchens at the Mining Mess?”

There was an extended pause.

“If you really want to know so badly, I got a job in Biorecycling.”

“Decided you want to see crap become carp, instead of the other way around?” He chuckled quietly at his own joke.

No response came. He rolled over onto his back again. After a few minutes, he gave up waiting, and sent another message.

“How’s Dema?”

“She’s engaged.”

Kinch sat up quickly, his butt sinking to the bottom of the shallow pool to support his weight.

“Yeah, I know. I meant how’s the engagement going?”

“Nice try. She asked me to tell you about it the next time you called to ask for money.”

He sat for a few minutes, staring blankly at where his feet disappeared into paint-like liquid. He hadn’t been aware that she was seeing someone.

He’d thought years ago that he’d finally won out over Nellina when Dema had taken to gambling, like her old man. Nellina wouldn’t even talk to him for a year after that. It hadn’t mattered, though. He’d heard enough about Dema from his fellow gamblers. He’d even used her reputation to keep in the black a few times.

But then she’d stopped gambling about a year ago, and no one knew why. And even though Dema still made a living at the grum torus, Nellina had gloated.

And now Dema was settling down.

Somehow, though, he felt very proud of her. This wasn’t her path because her mother had told her to take it, or because of her father’s legacy. She was her own, smart, capable person, and he was proud of her, dammit.

He would buy her an engagement present.

He stood up and quickly stepped out of the pool… His head swam and he tipped backward, falling slowly in the low gravity. He felt the double impact of striking the surface of the pool, and then its bottom. Giant globules of topaz drifted lazily up around him. The skinners dodged out of the way with practiced ease in their spider-like crouches, shooting him dirty looks and shouting things he was still too dazed to hear.

Kinch sat up, shaking the stars out. Then the globules came down, splattering on the walkways, and in the other pools, and on the people laying in the other pools. One landed on the face of a man two pools down from him. He sputtered, cursing, and sat up, trying to shake the liquid out of his nose and mouth and eyes, making sure that none of it slipped down his neck under the edges of the exoskin.

Kinch stood up again, more slowly this time. Setting aside his gray flat cap for the moment, he picked up his pants from the foot of the pool. He was about to put them on when one of the skinners, a beefy woman in her thirties — a former grummer, by the look of her — came up to him. She took him by the shoulders, moving him toward the exit.

“Hey!” he said, slipping out of her grasp and going back to get his cap.

She walked up to him, snatched the cap, and threw it down into the pool, stepping on it with her bare foot to force it under.

“How dare you?” He draped his pants over his left arm and fished out the cap with his other hand.

She took him by the shoulders again and escorted him out as he wrung the liquid out his cap, which was now a queer, dark aquamarine.

The skinner shoved him — stumbling — out the door.

“Don’t expect me to come back here!” he shouted.

“Good,” she replied without looking back at him, and shut the door.

Kinch raised his left hand, his pants — still draped there — sliding up to his elbow. He smiled at the little ambrosia bottle he was palming. He’d grabbed it in his left hand when he’d reached with his right into the pool for his cap. He raised it to his nose and inhaled another pump of it before slipping his pants on. Then he walked past the front desk of the “spa” and up the stairs to the first floor.

Kinch checked his helmet, which already had the glass down, shook his cap out once more, placed it on his head, and then punched the button to evacuate the airlock.

“What would she like for an engagement present?” he sent to Nellina. He took the cap back off and looked at it, studying its new color. To be fair, it had been white when Nellina had bought it for him.

The airlock doors opened, and he walked out, his mind and eyes still on the cap.

Hands grabbed each of his arms and carried him back into the airlock.

“Hello,” Kinch said, waving his cap at the two thugs who held him with what limited mobility his arms had. The ambrosia was still in effect, so he felt no anxiety at their appearance.

A third man walked straight up to him, slicing the cap clean in half with a ten-centimeter nanoblade. “Give us the money,” he said, idly twirling the white knife in his hand.

“Who sent you?” Kinch asked.

“Mirx,” came the answer from the man cutting off circulation to his right arm.

“Well, he’s going to have to get in line.”

“Huh?” asked the thug on his left.

“I owe five times as much to Arich.”

“You’re in some deep cack, then,” the man with the knife said.

“I don’t think Arich will take well to having his repayment delayed by your boss. I was actually on my way to go give him the money right now.”

“Was you? Because it looks to me like you was doin’ your best to spend it all before me and Arich can get our hands on it.”

“Look, if you want to risk your boss’ neck, that’s your business.”

The meatheads holding his arms looked questioningly at the man with the knife.

“Alright,” he said. “I’ll let you go. But, just to show you, you don’t mess with Mirx…” He raised the knife.

Kinch started to hyperventilate, pulling his right hand toward his chest. The man on that side forced his arm back out immediately, and the eyes of the leader shifted hungrily to that hand.

“Just not my index finger,” Kinch begged. “Please not my index finger.”

KL started reading a message. “She’d like a new tablet–“

“Tell her I–” Kinch whispered, but the man holding his right arm interrupted him.

“Why not?”

“I need it for… you know… skinner business…”

The man with the knife laughed. “Thanks for the tip.”

“Don’t. Please don’t.” Kinch pleaded with them.

“Shut up!” shouted the man on his right.

The man with the knife slid the blade down between the index and middle finger of his right hand. He turned the blade to face toward his index finger, and made a swift motion upward.

The finger came off and Kinch screamed. The men holding his arms let him go as he pulled his right hand back to his chest and covered it with his left. Blood seeped out between his fingers.

The thugs backed out of the airlock, laughing, as Kinch struggled over to the wall and hit the button to repressurize with his elbow.

As soon as the doors closed, Kinch’s screams turned to laughter. He let go of his right hand and scooped up one of the torn pieces of cap, wiping the fake blood from the stump. Then he picked up the prosthetic finger and cleaned it off as well, squeezing the excess fake blood out. When it was clean enough, he looked at it, grinning.

The best insurance policy he ever invested in. Only needed it twice in twenty years, but worth every dunnet. The airlock doors behind him opened, and he turned, startled, slipping the finger into the pocket of his pants.

He waited a couple of minutes to let the thugs clear out before trying to leave again through the same airlock.

“Why exactly,” KL read, “do you need a tablet for skinner business?”

“What? KL, why would you send that Nellina? Obviously I was talking to the thugs!”

“You told me to.”

He sighed. It was no use trying to explain to Nellina. The lie would reflect better on him than the truth, anyhow.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Tell her I’ll get Dema the tablet.”

He stepped from the airlock out under the dark sky. “Where do the twenty-somethings shop for tablets these days?”


Read the next chapter: Roddy


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Selecting Faces Chapter 10: Yazen

Yazen - bullied character from Selecting Faces

art by Erin Cardwell

Yazen bounded up the stairwell of the apartment building where he and his mom lived. He slowed when he saw Tix waiting for him on the landing. He was afraid this might happen.

Tix was actually a year younger than Yazen himself, but he was a few centimeters taller, and an extra ten kilos.

Yazen avoided Tix’s eyes — which were puffy, and yet blazing — and continued to climb the stairs. Tix moved over to prevent him from stepping onto the landing. Tix glared down at him, his extra height exaggerated by the last stair.

“Just let me go upstairs.” Yazen did his best to keep his voice from quivering.

Rhene didn’t deserve to win.”

“She didn’t break the rules.”

“But she didn’t deserve to win. That was obvious in the next grum.”

“So what she lost in the second round? She beat your sister.”

Tix shoved Yazen backward. He knew he wouldn’t be able to keep from losing his balance, so he leapt backward off the top stair and floated for a second before his shoes turned back on, pulling him onto the steel tiles of the next landing down.

“What do you want?” Yazen asked.

“My sister deserved to win that grum and you know it.”

He eyed the other boy. “You want me to give you my mom’s cut.” Yazen had picked up the prize money for winning the first-round grum. That was their custom, so that his mom wouldn’t be tempted to turn around and gamble it away.

Tix didn’t reply. He just stood, staring down from the top of the half-flight of stairs.

“And when my mom comes home?” Yazen continued. “She’s not going to be pissed at me, you know.”

“Then she can take it up with my sister. In a fair fight, you know Rhene doesn’t stand a chance.”

“A fair fight! Ha! We saw that today.”

Tix scoffed. “The only reason Rhene was able to splash Kasi today is because she was cherry-picking.”

“That’s how grums work, dummy! You can’t get so focused on taking down one person that you let someone else surprise you.”

Tix launched himself off the landing toward Yazen. Yazen yelped and charged up the stairs, under Tix’s gliding feet. Tix growled, hitting the lower landing and racing up after him.

Yazen took the steps two at a time, which was all he could do with his short legs. Tix caught hold of his left ankle, causing him to fall down onto the stairs. Yazen drove his right foot down onto Tix’s wrist, and he let go.

He scrambled to his feet and bounded up to the next landing, throwing open his door. He tried to slam it shut behind him, throwing all his weight against it, but Tix was already on the landing. His extra weight allowed him to shove Tix backward — magnetic shoes scraping on the metal floor.

Seeing that he couldn’t win here, he abandoned the door to run deeper into the apartment. Without his resistance, the door flung open, slamming into the wall. Before Yazen had a chance to take more than a couple of steps away from the door, Tix’s arms closed around his chest.

“Give me the money!”

Yazen’s mind reeled as he tried to remember what his mom would do in a grum.

He threw his hips back and spun to the left, slamming his left forearm into Tix’s gut to push him away.

Tix breathed out with the shove, grabbing Yazen’s arm and reeling him in. Yazen used the force of Tix’s pull as a source of momentum throwing a jab with his right hand.

Tix had him too close, though, and the punch was too far inside Yazen’s reach to be effective. Tix threw an undercut into his stomach. He crumpled to the floor.

Tix moved to pin him down, and Yazen kicked at him wildly. Yazen’s steel-clad shoe connected with his shin. He let out a yell, grabbing his shin and hopping onto the other foot. Yazen kicked at Tix’s remaining leg and the younger, larger boy went down.

Yazen scrambled away through the small living room. Tix was up and after him in a flash. Yazen darted into the bathroom and tried to shut this door behind him also, but didn’t quite get it closed in time. His shoes started to slide back — but then his feet hit the door of the shower and stopped.

With something to brace against, he was able to push the door closed. He took one hand off the door to reach for the lock, and Tix pushed it open again, slipping his arm through the gap. He didn’t have the strength to hold the door closed with one hand while he locked it with the other.

“Just give me the money,” Tix grunted, reaching around the edge of the door, trying to knock away Yazen’s hands.

Yazen didn’t reply. Beads of sweat were forming on his face and his breath was quick pants.

Tix braced his arm against the wall on the inside of the bathroom and put his back against the door — and pushed. Yazen’s arms were being forced against their will to bend.

He got an idea. “YB, don’t let me transfer any money until my mom gets home.”

“Account locked,” YB replied.

Tix forced his way into the bathroom, his eyes wild with fury.

“I can’t give you the money, even if I wanted to.” Yazen tried to catch his breath, kneeling on the floor before Tix.

Tix’s face contorted into a more vicious snarl, but he turned and stormed back into the living room, eyes roaming wildly. He grabbed a floor lamp and swung it against the corner of the wall between the living room and kitchen. It snapped in half, the top flinging across the kitchen and smashing into the wall.

He stood with the bottom half of the lamp dangling from his hand, his chest heaving.

“Why do you need the money so badly?” Tix ignored him, passing through the kitchen to retrieve the other half of the lamp on his way out the door.

Yazen got up, and hovered cautiously near the bathroom.

After a minute, Mr. Nolter appeared in the doorway of the apartment. He had on olive green trousers over his exoskin. “Are you okay?”

Yazen nodded.

“I heard a crash.”

Yazen shrugged. “The lamp broke.”

“I see.” Mr Nolter stepped into the living room, noting some broken bits of plastic on the rug. “But you didn’t break it.”

Yazen shook his head.

Mr. Nolter bent down and scooped up one of the larger pieces.

“I thought I heard Tix’s voice earlier. Did he do it?”

Yazen looked away, saying nothing.

Mr. Nolter nodded thoughtfully. “Tell your mom what happened when she gets back.”

“Yes, sir.”

Mr. Nolter went out the door, walking upstairs to the penthouse.

Yazen went into the kitchen to get the hose for the central vac. When he came back into the living room to clean up the broken bits of the lamp, Tix was standing next to the small sofa, facing away from him, plugging in an old — but working — lamp.

When he noticed Yazen staring, he shrugged. “Keep it. Kasi and I won’t be needing it.”


Read the next chapter: Kinch


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Selecting Faces Chapter 9: Arich

Arich - mobster character from Selecting Faces

art by Erin Cardwell

The door unlatched, cracking open the middle of Arich’s screen. Gossamer entered and gave a small bow.

“You wanted to see me?” He squinted against the light of the projector.

“Yes,” Arich said, muting the video of the grum clip he was watching. He had to find a way for Trinta to beat Rhene. It was essential to her credibility as a grummer. “Come sit.”

The peacekeeper hovered next to the screen, a phantom Rhene — hanging upside-down — seeming to punch him in the groin.

“Do you know anything else about the PFA that you haven’t already told me?”

“I haven’t been withholding anything — not intentionally at least. Is there something you want to know?”

Arich shook his head. Sirius‘ scheme was so radical, even Gossamer might think better of it and tip off the stripes.

“Who services the PFA?”

“Tormer is the head of the analysis team…”

“Does she manage the software and hardware of the PFA?”

“Some of the software, I think. But the IT for the Hedron is managed by a group from the Utility and Communications Department.”

“Do they manage the pax servers as well?”

“I assume so. Are you planning something?”

“Nothing yet. Just gathering intelligence. What else can you tell me?”

“The PFA team works by recognizing patterns associated with criminal activities, and then using those patterns to determine what you and Sirius are up to.”

You and Sirius. Arich loved it when people said that. He’d worked hard to become Sirius’ most trusted canid. Someday, maybe Sirius would see him as more than a partner in crime, but when it came to leisure, he always favored Eris.

“Go on,” Arich said.

“The signals where they look for patterns are already noisy. You might be able to find a way to drown out the real signal.”

“Any suggestions on how to do that?”

“You could have your customers get directions to a random address when they’re leaving your bordellos. It seemed to work when you started having them get directions to nearby businesses instead of the actual front.”

“That might buy us a few weeks. But it’s not a permanent fix.”

The projection of Rhene squared off against another grummer, ignoring a fight less than a meter from her left elbow. He stopped, pulled up the previous clip side-by-side with this one. This one was a nearly identical situation but on her right side. He rolled the clip. Rhene took a step back to buy herself time to evaluate the other fighters before engaging her opponent. Could she… be blind in her left eye? Probably not, but he’d have Trinta try to exploit any possible weakness.

Gossamer’s eyebrows shot up. “What if you have them query, not a random address, but a distribution of addresses that will look similar to the opening of a new bordello centered on a legitimate business. Widen the field with some false positives.”

“If we’re going that far, why not skew the existing distributions systematically, have them center on a legitimate business a block away.”

“Even better. That way, even true positives will seem like false ones.”

Arich hesitated. If he had Trinta come charging at Rhene from the left every time, it would give away that she knew her secret and Rhene would be ready for it. They needed to be more subtle.

“Perhaps we shouldn’t change our behavior too abruptly. We don’t want them to know we’re forging the signals they rely on.”

“Good point.”

He dismissed the second video and loaded another of the first grum, this one from a different angle. Then he merged the two together into a sim. The projection became grainier and bits of the action fuzzed out sometimes, but a 3D view was the right tool for the job.

He stood, swinging the virtual camera around so that he was viewing the grum from Rhene’s perspective. The fight on her left was clearly in view and a mere step away.

He closed his left eye and the conflict disappeared. Rhene was either blind or foolhardy. Either was good news for Trinta.

He turned off the projector and turned to Gossamer.

“Could we tap into the PFA and see what they see? Maybe we could move our businesses before their locations reach the level of detection?”

“Maybe. You’d have to be hardwired in to circumvent the network security protocols.”

“Hardwired in where?”

“I’m not sure where the pax servers are located. It’s not general knowledge.”

“Do you know who is on the IT team that services them?”

“Yes.”

Gossamer dictated the names to Arich’s tablet and went back to his beat with a few extra dunnets.

Arich followed him to the door, beckoning in the girl he had sitting outside. She was no more than 12. Girls of her age made the best hounds. They were sly enough to follow even an Alpha, and innocent-looking enough not to arouse suspicion.

He handed his tablet to her. She took it without a word and read it. After a few seconds, she handed it back to him, repeating all the names on the list.

“Those folks need a tail. They’re not stripes, even though they all work at the Hedron. But I think that they work somewhere else, too. I need to know where. Take as many hounds with you as you need. I want this done as soon as possible.”

She nodded and bounded away.


Read the next chapter: Yazen


Selecting Faces Table of Contents

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Selecting Faces Chapter 8: Kasi

Kasi - server character from Selecting Faces

art by Erin Cardwell

 

Today could not have been a worse day. Kasi had woken up with one of the worst hangovers of her life, had lost a grum that she should have won, and lost it so badly that she didn’t get paid. Fighting that injustice had made her late to her shift at Orion’s Bistro, so she’d been relegated to serve the worst tables in the restaurant. Not to mention the fact that she was still a little soggy from getting splashed in the grum — which wouldn’t have been a problem if she’d placed even a little higher.

And to top it all off, she had the worst customer occupying the best table in her measly bunch.

He was about thirty, tall, a little overweight, with nervous, shifting eyes. He was decked out in formal attire: white tie, black shirt, and white pants obscured virtually all of his exoskin.

Kasi’s section of the restaurant was meant for the truly ostentatious — set up on a balcony — which is why it had only three small tables. But unless one of the Alphas or Betas came in, it was unlikely that she would make tips enough to justify the inordinate service she was expected to render her customers. Instead, most of the time her customers were pairs of middle-class saps who were coming to a restaurant like this for a special occasion, sitting in the fancy section, and then proceeding to try and spend as little as possible because they couldn’t really afford to come here in the first place. This was the story with one of her tables. Another of her tables was sitting empty at Gabra’s insistence, in case someone truly important strolled in, expecting to be seated at once.

And the third was occupied by the man in the white tie. He hadn’t ordered anything but a glass of water, which he kept picking up and setting down, over and over, and alternately glancing behind him, over the edge of the balcony at the entrance of the restaurant.

Kasi dropped off a check to the other diners — not that they’d requested the check, but they’d certainly been here long enough, especially since they’d turned down multiple offers for more dessert or another round of drinks — and approached the man in the white tie as he picked up his water and set it back down without drinking.

“Can I get you anything?” Kasi asked.

“No, not until my girlfriend gets here,” he replied without looking at her. His eyes darted from the entrance, to his water glass, which he picked up and set down again.

“You could move to the other side of the table, you know.”

“I don’t want it to look like I’m waiting for her.”

Kasi grabbed the lip of the table to keep from slapping him.

He started to babble nervously. “If it looks like I’m waiting for her, then she’ll think that I disapprove of her and she’ll be upset and then I’ll be upset for upsetting her, and then the moment won’t be right and –” Kasi walked away even though he was still talking.

She went past a flight of stairs leading down to the main dining room, and turned a corner, disappearing into her station. It had a checkout stand, stacks of menus, bins of supplies, and a pneumatic dumbwaiter to lift prepared dishes up from the kitchen. Almost immediately Gabra appeared behind her.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Gabra asked.

“Ugh!” Kasi let out involuntarily.

“I saw you walk away from that customer while he was talking.” She stepped around the corner to get a view of him. “And now he’s crying!”

“That’s not my fault! He’s all worked up because his girlfriend is running late.”

“And you want his girlfriend to arrive to find him crying? I’m sure that will be really great for both of their appetites.”

Kasi shifted her weight to the side and gave Gabra an exasperated look, who returned to her an insistent stare.

“Fine.” Kasi brushed past her and strode over.

The man in the white tie had buried his face in his hands.

“I’m sure she’s just running late because of the shuttle. I heard the new colonists were arriving around this time today.”

“You think so?” he asked, looking up. His eyes were all puffy and red. He sniffed, sucking wet snot back into his nose.

“I do.” She turned to walk away, then she caught Gabra’s eye. She was hovering near the top of the stairs, watching her. Kasi turned back to the pitiful man. “Blow your nose on the napkin. I’ll get you a new one.”

He took the napkin off his appetizer plate, unfolded it, and emptied his sinuses into it. He held it out to her.

She stared at it for a few seconds, wishing profusely to scoff and stroll away, but she couldn’t. Not with Gabra watching her. She took it, holding it away from her with two fingers.

Gabra remained by the top of the stairs as Kasi brushed by her and went to her station. She dropped the dirty napkin in her bus bin, and then grabbed a replacement.

Gabra nodded her approval and descended the stairs again as Kasi dropped off the napkin to the man in the white tie. He gave her a weak smile, then picked up his water and set it back down. He glanced over his shoulder and his red eyes lit up. Standing, he waved at the entrance of the restaurant.

“Finally,” Kasi muttered, moving over to the now-vacant table where her other customers had left their check and gone. Maybe she could still make enough.

She picked up the check and dropped it into her apron. “Give me some good news, KM.”

“Seven dunnets on a seventy-two dunnet bill. Nine point seven percent.”

“Of course,” she sighed. She grabbed a pair of menus from her station and returned to where the girlfriend was just sitting down. He’d had Kasi wait to bring the menus until she got here.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” the girlfriend said.

“What happened?”

Kasi went ahead and placed the menus on the table, since they weren’t paying any attention to her. She was about to walk away when she saw Gabra down on the floor of the dining room glance up at her. These were the premium tables, and she’d be remissed if she walked away when there were no other tables to go serve, no other duties to perform.

“It’s a long story,” she replied, waving a hand. “And I’m hungry.”

Kasi opened her mouth to run through today’s specials, but the man interrupted her.

“I was really worried about you.”

“There was no reason to be.”

“So what happened?”

She sighed. “I was dragged downtown by an overzealous stripe.”

“What? Why?”

“Well, the streets were super crowded, and I was running late, and I didn’t want to keep you waiting, so I thought I could get here faster if I took the rooftops.”

“You were swifting.”

“I wasn’t doing it dangerously.”

“We talked about this,” he said. “It’s always dangerous. If not for your health, then for your reputation.”

“No one is going to blame me for hurrying to a date with you.”

Kasi interrupted them. “Can I get you started with anything to drink?”

“A Gin Centauri for me,” said the girlfriend.

“And anything for you?”

“But why were you running late in the first place?”

“I just lost track of time.”

“You were gambling, weren’t you?”

“Handicapping,” she corrected. “I haven’t gambled since we talked about how a mom shouldn’t gamble.” She turned to Kasi. “I’m sorry about your luck today, by the way.”

Kasi’s cheeks flushed as she recognized the woman she was waiting on. Dema. She had been an renown punter, and no one knew for certain why she’d quit gambling. There were rumors, of course. That bitter punters who she’d beaten had hired some thugs to teach her a lesson. Kasi and many of the other grummers didn’t take stock in that story: everyone knew Dema had nerves like nanotubes.

Yet here was the answer, and it was far more mundane than any of the rumors.

“A mom shouldn’t be swifting either,” he said quietly.

“You do realize that Dema is one of the best punters there’s ever been. She has a gift, and you’re making her waste it.”

“For the love of the alphas, can you give us some space!” he said, rising from the table.

With pleasure, Kasi thought as she ducked out of the conversation.

As soon as she left the table, KM automatically relayed the drink order to the computer. Within a minute, the pneumatic dumbwaiter rose up and opened, bearing the Gin Centauri. Dema and the man in the white tie were still bickering — rather loudly — but Gabra’s policy was clear: when food or drink arrived on the dumbwaiter, it was to be on the table in thirty seconds, unless it would mean interrupting service to the customer she was with.

As Kasi walked back out to the table, she saw a couple come in. The badge on the woman’s sleeve marked her as a beta. The host gestured toward the balcony. They looked up, saw the fighting couple, and shook their heads. They pointed to a table on the lower floor. Kasi sighed. She set the drink in front of Dema without a word, then stalked back to her station.

When she got back there, out of sight, she slid the glass of her helmet down over her face. “KM, mute outgoing for a minute will you.”

The noise of the restaurant — including that of the worst customers she’d ever had — faded to a low rumble.

“Remember, you’re in an atmospheric building, so –“

“You couldn’t do this somewhere else?” she growled, not to KM. “I mean really, you’re here for a half hour ordering absolutely nothing, just taking up space, and then even when your girlfriend does get here, you don’t even bother to order a drink before you start bickering like you’re already married. And not only that, but you’re driving the other customers away, the only chance I have of making some decent tips. And of course you would. Of course you would. Because the whole burning solar system is conspiring against me today!”

Kasi breathed for a few seconds. Very faintly, she could still hear the voices of her fruitless patrons. She closed her eyes, leaning heavily on the checkout stand, hanging her head.

“Could you send a message to Tix?”

“Go ahead,” KM replied.

“We’re not going to have enough to keep Roddy from throwing us out. Pack up the Gyro-tote with some blankets, and all of the food. Fill up our water bottles and put them in there, too. If there’s any more room, pack up anything you think we can sell. Wait for me in the stairwell. I’ll be home at 1700.”

A lump formed in her throat and she did her best to swallow it back down.

“Is that the end of the message?” KM asked.

“Tell him not to be scared… That’s everything,”

“Message sent.”

Kasi took a deep breath and turned back toward the dining room.

Gabra was standing right behind her.

She said something, but it was muffled. “Glass up,” she said, motioning.

Kasi hurriedly unlocked the glass and slid it back from her face. “Sorry I –“

“Go.” Gabra gestured back toward the dining room.

Kasi brushed past her.

The bickering couple was gone.

No. They weren’t gone. That was still Dema, but she was smiling now, and holding hands with the man across from her, who had taken off his white tie.

She strolled up to the table. “Can I get you something to drink?” she asked hopefully.

“Get us a bottle of bubbly!” he said.

“We’re engaged,” Dema explained. “What will you have to eat, dear?” she asked her new fiancee. “Anything you want; it’s my treat. Let’s dip into the gambling fortunes I’ll make tomorrow,” she said, giving Kasi a wink.


Read the next chapter: Arich


Selecting Faces Table of Contents

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