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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 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 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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A White Washed Tomb

Stephen looks around the family room.

“Where is it?” He says out loud, throwing stacks of paper around, turning furniture upside down, spilling out the contents on the floor. He runs his hands through the pile digging and digging until he was pulling up carpet.

“Where did I put it?”

He runs upstairs to his room. Checks his dresser drawer and then re checks it. He tears off the covers and flips over the mattress. He looks over the night stand at the picture of his wife Susan. He wonders what’s she’s doing.

Then he remembers why he’s looking for his keys in the first place. Falling down to the floor he looks under the bed, nothing. He springs back up.

“Where could they be?”

Feeling something in the palm of his hand he opens it to reveal metallic pieces hung together by a thin chain.

“There they are.”

Then he thinks of Susan his beautiful sweet Susan with her tan skin her black tasseled hair, her slender frame. He imagines her dancing, dancing, dancing. Not for money. Not for fame. Not for anyone but him. Stephen smiles, moving downstairs he ignores the mess he has made.

He opens the front door. He walks out to his driveway. He was ten steps away from his car.

“Stephen!” He turns around to see Mary and Jerry Fitzgerald approaching him the happily married couple, the perfect next door neighbors. Their smiles are shining sparkling ivory. Not a dent or scratch in their pearly whites. They walk in sync, her arm gently around him and his around her, her blond hair blowing in the breeze, the envy of the city, the evil in Stephen’s heart.

He swallows and thought what she looks like naked. Strangely enough he transposes Susan’s body on hers. Even stranger he did the same for Jerry. He shuts his eyes hard and opens them for Mary and Jerry to be fully clothed.

“Where you off to Stephen?” Jerry pushes up his glasses.

“Nowhere.” Stephen wants to hurry away opening his door.

“Oh come on Stephen. You never do anything with us anymore. You and Susan used to stop by all the time.” Says Mary. He is stuck.

“Yea. You guys never come over anymore. How is Susan? It’s been ages since you guys came to our last party.”

Stephen had more money then.

“Susan’s been busy working.” says Stephen.

“I’m actually on my way to pick her up. I’m sorry guys we should do something soon. But I have to go, I’m late.”

He slams the door as he gets into his car. He watches the Fitzgerald’s from the rearview mirror. They wave in unison with big grins. Then they turn and walk back into their home. Jerry looks back seeing his house. It’s white, the only white house in the neighborhood of brick. It’s almost obscene how noticeable it is.

“How can the other neighbor’s stand it?” Stephen says to himself.

He breathes a deep sigh when it was finally out of sight.

“God it is so horrible!”

“Day in and day out, it’s so glaring and obvious! A dung pile burning in their noses how can they tolerate it?”

Stephen stops talking as he enters the highway. He pays careful attention to the drivers around him. His eyes dart right then left. His hands become clammy and tense as he grips the steering wheel. His heart races as a car comes closer and closer to him from behind only to turn left and speed up.

“Bastards!” he mutters to himself. “Bastards all bastards, all dirty stinky miserable vain bastards!” His face is getting redder the more he mutters to himself.

“They’re all ugly. Stupid. Conceited..” He begins to drool a little. The fuel tank alarm sounds.

“Aaahh come on!” he shouts. In the business to leave he forgot to check the fuel gauge. He starts cursing everything, the road, the cars and the people.

“All are in my way!!!” He turns off to the next exit. Luckily there is a gas station not too far. Stephen pulls in and starts pumping gas. He looks around the station, remarking in his mind about its dirtiness. He then went on to comment on the stench.

“Never have my nostrils befell something so odious.” He says to himself, barely audible.

“Stephen!” Stephen turns around and sees Phil.

“How are you? You know I haven’t seen you in some time. It’s been ages.”

Phil is short and pudgy. His head gleams from lack of hair. Stephen looks into his beady eyes pausing for a proper response.

“I’ve been good.” Stephen checks the amount, ten bucks and still going up.

“Yea, well that’s swell. The office is still the same. You know pushing paper, crossing T’s and dotting I’s. You know how that goes. The new guy that’s in is doing an ok job. But that’s boring stuff eh. How’s Susan? How’s your wife?” Stephen’s gas-nuzzle clicks off.

“Sorry Phil. I have to go. We should talk some other time.”

“Yea we should.”

Stephen closes the door of his car and speeds down the highway.

Thoughts of Susan race through his head, Stephen entertains an old memory. Stephen is sitting in his chair reading the paper. Susan is sneaking up behind him. She lifts her arms high above and plops a big bowl of fudge on his head. Stephen jumps up and chases her as she laughs. The memory flickers out as the next exit approaches.

He turns in where all traffic ceases to exist. Only people on foot come where he is. Walking leaches with pale blotted skin, wearing over coats, trying to hide the burn marks from their cigarettes, a lot of the same that feed from the sewer, the refuse from the rich. The values from the shadow of diamonds, it sparkles and dazzles to hide what it does in the dark.

He turns down a familiar alley where vomit is the key to the right direction, old nostalgia for Stephen. Cat fights behind dumpsters, high art obscenity written on every building, the vulgarity in the tension of Stephen’s grip.  He turns the wheel.

He emerges from the alley. There they are. All lined up like peacocks for display. A vanity they need to sell what’s in between their legs. All shades of color mismatched and ill applied.

“They’re all clowns.” Stephen mutters to himself seeing how their looks fade from one to the next in an evolution of degradation. Not one peek his interest, but there are enough men on the street to take one and disappear into dark places. Some may not survive. If they’re gone no one cares to look, just another dead prostitute for the police to write up, put in a file and never look at again.

Stephen turns his head toward a familiar form. She turns. Her body dazzles in his mind. He stops the car and rolls down the window beside her.

“Susan!” She looks at Stephen with a sour expression.

“Oh, it’s you. Listen I can’t go with you anymore. Jeremy doesn’t like me going away for so long.”

“Susan please, come back to me. I’m your husband.”

“Listen, cut the husband crap ok. You still owe Jeremy money. He’s still pissed.”

“Susan.”

“I ain’t going with you.”

“But you’re my wife.”

“How many times do I have to tell you? I ain’t your wife. That was all role-play. You might have thrown a wedding and everything, but I ain’t married to you.”

“But I… But I…” Stephen stammers. “But I love you.” A tear rolls down Stephen’s cheek.

“Well that’s a shame because I don’t love you.” A man emerges from the dark in a purple jacket with rings on his fingers. He yanks open the door and grabs Stephen’s wrist flinging him to the pavement.

“You’re the fool, who took candy and hasn’t paid in full.” Stephen squirms against the man’s impressive bulk.

“Jeremy don’t. He’s just a sucker.”

“Shut up Candy! Every sucker has to pay.”

Jeremy dragged Stephen into the alley while Stephen kicks and screams.

“No don’t! Susan please help! Susan don’t leave! Susan please! I love you.”

A few moments of struggle and then silence.

001