Snippet: “Out of His Depth”

“We really wanted to know what was on the iPad!”

It’s not the reactions when you walk away and leave your iPad on the brewery’s patio that matter, it’s the ones that come when you return to pick the damned thing up.  Now, look, I’ve done the walk of shame before.  I’ve, errr, done an awful lot of walks of shame to be honest.  But that shame?  I don’t know why, but it’s worse than when you leave someplace you’ve never been with your underwear hanging out of your back pocket…

And, no, as a writer, there ain’t no such thing as “too much information”!  Sorry, mom.

It’s weird, by the way, to go from the free-for-all that is Montana and North Dakota to the…err…far-more-restricted world of the midwest.  I’m currently in western Michigan, and this place is — to put it mildly — absolutely terrified of a totally different virus than we experienced out west.

Anyone who has read this blog for more than a month or two knows that I am no wacky, masks-are-the-Holocaust nutjob, but do we really need to have the people serving breakfast in the hotel dressed in (proverbial) hazmat suits?!

Oh, and by the way, do not order the spicy-chili-garlic tacos if you have to wear a mask soon after.  You have been warned.

I have a friend who was born with the music gene — as soon as she gets to a new town, she finds every single place (whether bar, club or someone’s backyard) that offers live music.  My dad was born with the friendship gene; he is not in a new place for more than five minutes before he has 18 new friends, and a deep understanding of the locals their favorite places.

Me?  I was born with the beer gene.  I don’t research.  I don’t read or Google.  I don’t check Untapp’d or the BA website or anything else.  I just…use the Force.  ObiWan may have felt Alderaan crying out when the Death Star arrived, but I can feel millions of brain cells crying out in terror as the next round arrives, and then are suddenly silenced…

Of course I’m not on the patio of a taproom as I write this!  Would I ever do such a thing?  Writing is too serious for beer!

At any rate, I haven’t done a snippet in a while.  Err, I haven’t done one measured by time — by post, my last one was only a few posts ago.  Oh well, just take the scene and stop asking questions!

Obligatory Snippet Warning — anything I tag as a “snippet” is a first-draft, unedited bit from my longer fiction.  I am currently posting bits and pieces from the second story in my Dockrat trilogy, titled The Silence That Never Comes:

“Out of His Depth

If the clothes were different from the ones Connor had known in his life before Chapman Pen, they still screamed money just as loudly as had the Station’s fashions.  Grays and blues and blacks, those Redux suits were.  All tailored to within an inch of their owners’ lives.  And all, Connor guessed, worth more than any of the prison’s bachu made in a year.

A single glance upwards brought a wave of vertigo.  The huge buildings all leaned close, crowded out the sky.  The clothes might put the Station to shame, but the surroundings, and the feelings they brought, those were very much Dockside: dark, oppressive, and seriously fucked up.

Every single person on that plaza turned to stare at Connor and the little parade of menace he led towards the one tower dominating the plaza.  Fifty stories tall, at least.  The dark grey concrete that so characterized the other buildings was covered on this one with a shiny, black facing.  Marble, Connor guessed.

It was easily the most extravagant building Connor had seen among the increasingly extravagant towers.  The front bore a massive logo, elaborate and aggressively gold against the black exterior.  What the hell was LRC Exploration?

The crowd continued to stare as Connor crossed that plaza.  He was an animal in the zoo, he decided, on display so those too afraid to actually experience life could watch with nothing to threaten their cocoons of privilege and ignorance.

There were many doors on the front of that building, all far bigger than they needed to be.  The lobby inside was easily as tall as Connor’s old res-hold; fifty feet, at least.  The same black marble, worked with gold designs, covered every surface of that interior.  More massive sculptures dotted the lobby, reached almost to the ceiling.

A few seconds to look and Connor could only shake his head.  “Sorry about that penis, boss,” he muttered.  How utterly ridiculous could you make one simple lobby?

“What’s that?” the thin man asked from behind his shoulder.  His voice was curt, and very, very doubting.

Connor stopped and turned with a shrug, “Shou ga nai, dorsun.”  The man had sure as hell never so much as seen a res-hold, let alone learned the subtle nuances of Dockside insults.  “You’re gonna have to take the lead, boss.  I got exactly zero idea what the fuck you want from me.”

There was no way he could more aggressively tell the guy to fuck off without using his fists.  And that would far too likely see his ass handed to him by the ever-present, ever-silent rvac at his shoulder.

The look he received from the thin man was not warm.  It was, Connor decided, the same look he himself gave to a kamo he wasn’t sure was worth the effort to scam.  Or to a pile of kuso he had just stepped in.  There were no more words, however, just a peremptory wave as the man stepped past and moved across the insanely over-dramatic lobby.

The stares from the people milling inside that lobby were even more intense than those from the ones outside.  Connor could feel the eyes follow him as he walked, could feel the sneering curiosity.  Just who was the scruffy bastard in the shitty, third-hand clothes?  What the hell could someone like him be doing in a place like this?

He was wondering the same thing himself.

There were security guards scattered throughout that crowd.  Although the place did not seem to have any formal security stations, one glance was enough to tell Connor that every single person inside that lobby was being subjected to the most detailed of scans.  Implants, biometrics, active scans for weapons and contraband…he had not doubt that the entire gamut was in play.  Just what the hell those scans and sensors would make of an ikiryo like him was worth another laugh, stifled and controlled before it could escape.

There were numerous elevators scattered across the back wall of the massive lobby.  Most were in constant use, with lines of people waiting impatiently to go up while just as many filed off after the descent to take their own places in that lobby.

A pair of elevators, however, saw no traffic whatsoever.  Maybe it was because they went nowhere, Connor thought.  More likely, however, it was because of the guard standing directly in front of them.  No word or sign of warning came from that guard.  Well, no warning beyond the very serious weapon in his arms and the fuck-you expression written clearly on his face.

The change in expression from dour and threatening to obsequious took less than a heartbeat, however, when the thin man stepped up to whisper to him.  Connor was staring intently at the thin man, but still barely noticed the double-twitch of his hands that opened the doors to the last of those elevators.

All implants read muscle twitches and nerve impulses to control their functions.  Most, however, required movements that were very big, and very obvious.  Something able to interpret the small, barely detectable motions the thin man used as they stepped past the guard spoke volumes about the quality — and the expense — of the system inside his body.

There was nothing inside the elevator they entered to indicate what it was.  Nothing.  Even the Station, as Connor remembered, had elevators that looked like, well…elevators.  Inside that particular elevator, however?  This might as well have been in a comfortable little nook in a library.

There wasn’t even a sensation of motion, and that disturbed Connor even more than the decor.  He had no idea how high they rose, and that was not comforting.  It could be the fifth floor to which they took him, and a loud, crowded room of equipment that could quite easily dispose of one Connor-sized body.  Or it could be the thousandth floor, and a visit to a deity that Connor was fairly certain would be less-than-pleased to meet him.

The doors snapped open onto something else entirely, something that could very well have come from the fevered dreams of some Dockside himo with delusions of grandeur.  It was a huge room, filled with big overstuffed couches in delicate pastel colors.  Those couches were carefully divided and segmented by elaborately designed planters and decorative tables.  The walls were lined with vibrant paintings and intricate sculptures.  And, among it all, milled a large crowd of people, talking in small groups of twos and threes.

It would have been funny if it weren’t so…large.  At least twenty feet high, and almost as expansive as the lobby downstairs.  It was one of the stupidest things Connor had ever seen.

“Still going with the overcompensation theme, are we?  Good choice,” Connor observed to the thin man, a derisive grin on his face.

A heavy hand grabbed the back of his neck.  It didn’t shake, that hand, nor move in any way.  It just sat there, heavy and strong, and told its own story of promised threat.  Connor had no doubt that hand would very quickly do very bad things to him if the anorexic svine in front of him offered so much as a wink.

No wink came, however.  The thin man just turned and started across the room.  There was, as far as Connor could tell, only one other door in the whole place; a massive double door that took up far too much of the distant wall.  Shit, maybe there really was some form of god beyond that idiotic door.

That thought did not make Connor any more comfortable.

A secretary sat beside that door, behind a desk that looked larger than the entire unit Connor and Oz had once called home.  No words were spoken.  A look from the thin man and the doors swung open at the woman’s hurried wave.

“Fucking melodramatic,” Connor muttered.

All the snark and cynicism died, however, as soon as he stepped through those doors.

The waiting room may have taken things to new depths of ridiculousness, but the office beyond those doors was an entirely different world.  Even Connor was impressed.

“Holy fuck…” he whispered, trailing off as words failed him.

Even to Connor’s inexperienced eye, the place was tastefully, impressively dramatic.

He could almost hear Oz, Be very, very careful, Spog.  A place like this…this is no chinpira, just looking for respect.

Two entire walls were nothing but glass.  The fiftieth floor was very likely an understatement.  The view over the dense forest of high-rises that formed the heart of Redux’s capital was one of the most impressive things Connor had ever seen.

The office itself — for an office it was — was filled with subtle colors and restrained decor.  Small art pieces sat in discreet nooks, pieces that even Connor could tell were priceless.  A conference table so simple it screamed expensive.  Several couches and chairs situated near the windows to emphasize the view.  And a desk…a desk that very likely cost more than all of the Station.

Connor had once thought Hendricks’ Stationside apartment the epitome of rich and powerful.  Until that moment.

The rvac’s hand returned to the back of Connor’s neck even as the thin man spoke.  “Take a seat, Mr. Spogelse.  My employer will be with you in a few minutes.”

A brief thought of fighting, then, but Connor knew he was going to do whatever the hell those aho wanted, willing or not.

He sat where that hand pushed him, in one of the chairs in front of the desk.  He couldn’t take his eyes from the view beyond that desk.  He wasn’t sure if that view attracted him, or made him want to puke, but he couldn’t look away.  They had to be at least a thousand feet up.

For someone who had grown up amidst Dockside’s crowded holds, it was the most unnerving thing in the universe.

The sound of the doors from behind him, then, and a surge of voices.

Connor didn’t bother to look.  It would be something to help him, or something to kill him.  Either way, he couldn’t look away from that view…from all that space.

Shou ga nai.

“Hello, Mr. Spogelse,  I’ve heard a great deal about you, ” a voice said.  A voice young and strong.  And very, very confident.

Snippet: “After you…”


I have no excuse.  I’d love to tell you about the pack of wild dingoes threatening the baby.  And the rabid gorilla.  There was definitely a rabid gorilla….

I’d love to tell you that, but let’s be honest here: I let the world and its frustrations come between me and the words for the last few weeks.  Yes, it happens.  It happens to everyone…

Err…wait…is this post turning into a damned ED commercial?!

Shit, if only there was a little blue pill for writing!

At any rate, even if none of the ideas I had for a post today were worth a damn, I still want to put up something.  So…a snippet, then.

I know, I know — my last post was a snippet, too.  I’m overdoing it. But I want to get something out, and I failed miserably at the flashfiction challenge I set for myself this morning.*

*I fail that more than you would think.  I only post here the “successes” in that personal challenge…and seldom talk about the times I fail to come up with something worthwhile.

So, below is the scene that directly follows the last one I posted.

Since it has been a while since I offered my standard caveats, here is the reprise for new(ish) readers: any post I list as a “snippet” is a first- or second-draft scene from my longform fiction work.  They are only lightly edited, and represent those initial thoughts and plans for the story that are subject to change for the final version.  Additionally, I do not write stories in any kind of order as far as plot or chronology, so errors and changes abound in these early versions…

Snippet: “After you…”

Light colors accented and complemented paneling of some dark, densely-grained wood.  The seats were comfortable and plush.  A pleasant heat gently blew from discreet little vents.  If this was how the Families kidnapped people, Connor thought, maybe he’d picked the wrong side after all.

The gurentai next to him — no, damn it!  He had to remember where he was.  At all times, he had to remember where he was.  The rvac next to him gave lie to that luxury.  Connor had no doubt whatsoever there was a weapon hidden under that expensive jacket.  Just as he had no doubt the man could quite effectively tear him apart without having to so much as touch it.

The other man, the one so creepily slender, sat across from Connor.  Appearances aside, it was readily apparent just who was in charge inside that vehicle.

Connor quirked an eyebrow and asked, his voice light and easy, “A trip to vacant fields, I take it?  Maybe a nice tour of the better recycling plants?”

A small shake of the man’s head, and a brief smile.  It looked like it hurt, that smile, but Connor was used to expressions like that.  So, it wasn’t a thing limited to just Dockside and the Station, after all.  Rich folks everywhere resented the poor and unwanted.  Another item confirmed on Connor’s all-too-long list of shit the universe was doing wrong.

“Relax, Mr. Spogelse,” the man said.  “My employer simply wants to meet you.  Someone he trusts has advocated for you, and he is curious.”

“Advocated for me?” Connor responded with a chuckle.  Not even the most ignorant takie in the universe could miss the cynical disdain in that laugh.  “No one advocates for someone like me, boss.  People pay me, or arrest me, or kill me.  That’s pretty much it.”

Another shake of the man’s head, but no reply.

A shrug and Connor turned to look out the window, the dark tinting doing little to impair his view of the outside world.  So much for a little light conversation.

Connor had learned a bit about the geography of the city over the past year.  He knew the prison was on the north edge of Redux’s capital.  He knew, also, that there was little to the north of that rundown neighborhood apart from rocks and trees and frozen tundra.  Out that window, however, Connor saw neither trees nor swampy, half-frozen boulder fields.

What he saw were buildings.  Buildings that were growing larger and more dense.  The road they followed was narrow, as were all the streets in a city where personal vehicles were rare, but the traffic around them was picking up nonetheless.  That traffic was mostly large vehicles, double or triple the size of the one in which he was riding.  Trucks, he guessed, delivering goods and materials.

His trip in that particular van was, if not expected, at least not terribly surprising.  And the rvac?  He was most definitely nothing unusual in Connor’s little corner of the universe.  But why, in the name of all that was holy, were they taking him into the city?  Who dumped a dead body inside city limits?

No matter how many stories Rahm and Brian had told him, no matter how many holos he’d watched, nor stories he’d read, Connor still had never had any real experience of space.  Even the elite of the Station lived with constraints on the area available to them, let alone a res-hold kid like Connor.  But this planet…this planet was very, very different.

Connor had been born on a planet, but his memories of life on Mars were dissipating smoke, the dimmest memories of a long-forgotten dream.  No, Redux-the-planet just didn’t seem quite real to Connor’s jaded Dockside senses.

Just how the hell could these people even function with all that empty space around them?  As the buildings grew larger and more elaborate — and more expensive, even to his architecturally ignorant eye — so too did the sense of space grow.

“This is where the local consumer goods are made,” the slender man explained.

Connor almost jumped at that voice.  The guy had kidnapped him off the street, and now he wanted to play tour guide?  What the hell?

“These are mainly the smaller, independent companies on Redux.  The large manufacturers, along with most of the refining and processing facilities, are in the Setdown neighborhood south of the city,” the man continued.

The guy’s smug tone and bullshit attitude irritated Connor even more than his skin-tight suit and carefully pampered face.  Connor’s already strained temper snapped, and he let free all of the disdain and contempt that seethed within, “Can’t have the little guys mixing with the big boys, can we?  No, we wouldn’t that.  Some drunk executive might go and get all honest.  Couldn’t have the little guys finding out just how fucked they truly are.”

And then, at that, there came the clearest memory of Oz’s voice, “Uh, Spog, that little observation was maybe not the best idea at this particular moment.

On Oz, the almost androgynous, effete look had been natural, and had earned him a reputation as one of the most attractive baita in all of Dockside.  On the idiot across from Connor it seemed a ridiculous attempt to recapture all the youth and vibrancy so long lost to him.  It was surprising to Connor, then, when that ridiculousness turned suddenly to intimidation.  The man’s slight attempt at false civility fell away and his eyes turned into the pitiless, dead orbs of a shark.  A hungry shark.

The van suddenly seemed much colder…and far, far too small.

“Prison is not all that far away, Mr. Spogelse.  You would do well to remember that,” the man snapped.  His voice had not risen in the slightest.  It had, if anything, become even more quiet.    And that was worse.

Connor was unpleasantly reminded of someone from his past; reminded of a man he had watched cut the tongue from some poor bastard of a makeinu without the slightest change of expression.  The same man who had once, ironically enough, also kidnapped Connor.

Shit, the universe really did have a sense of humor.

“My employer has a great deal of patience, but it is not unlimited,” the man snapped.  “If you can live up to the expectations created for you, we will be friends.  If you cannot…”

No one needed to hear the end of that sentence, the meaning was all too clear.  Maybe the damned rvac wasn’t the most dangerous person in that van after all.

Connor’s attention went back to the window, where the industrial buildings were giving way to a stretch of green-and-brown country.  For some reason, Connor was just all kinds of interested in the countryside at that particular moment.

The city wasn’t all that big, in spite of its population.  Five million people could live in pretty tight quarters, if the high-rises Connor saw ahead were any guide.  Several miles away, he could see also the semi-permanent build-up of haze and fog that clung to the mountains cupping the small plain on which they had built Redux’s only real city.  Those mountains caught the moisture that blew in from the sea and combined it with the smoke and emissions of five million people living in just thirty square miles.

Farther south, just barely visible, that miasma was at its most dense.  And under that grey blanket?  The neighborhood called the Haze.  Redux’s worst slum.  Home to the poor and the forgotten, right alongside the gangs and thugs that were this planet’s answer to Dockside’s Families and gurentai.

The faded, dull colors of the countryside disappeared not gradually, but in a sharp transition that had Connor rubbing his eyes.  One minute there were shrubs and rocks and a few stunted trees, and an instant later?  Buildings.  Dark grey and crowding closely against the road.  The shortest was ten stories high, and most were considerably taller.

Every block brought buildings that were taller and taller, until the sky itself began to disappear. It didn’t take long for Connor to feel like he was again walking the narrow passages between Dockside’s towering stacks of cargo containers.

As the buildings grew in size, however, they grew also in extravagance.  Starting from stark functionality, each block brought improvements in esthetics and design, and evidence of ever-greater attention paid to the environment itself.  Plazas began to appear in front of those buildings.  Simple and stark at first, but growing quickly into elaborate displays of fountains and greenery that served only to highlight just how dour and oppressive were the towers that surrounded them.

Where the hell was the van taking him?  No Dockside Family would center operations in the buildings Connor saw.  Just like Connor himself, the Families did best when they were able to blend into the background noise.  Simple warehouses and rundown office blocks no one wanted to look at, that was where they did business.  No kumicho who wanted to last longer than a warm jug of milk would go anywhere near a fifty story high-rise.

Connor had no idea just how long they had been driving, nor how far into the blocks of high-rises they had come.  It was too alien, too different.  He couldn’t wrap his mind around a place like that.

The van slowed, rolled to a gentle stop.  The plaza Connor saw through the darkened window was the most elaborate he had seen so far.  In it were huge, heavy planters full of trees and shrubs that were almost aggressive in their greenness.  Several sculptures stood among those planters, geometric and confusing as hell.  The smallest of those sculptures was easily twice Connor’s height.

And people…there were people everywhere.  Lining up to buy food from carts scattered around the plaza’s periphery, or sitting on concrete benches as heavy and dark and oppressive as the buildings themselves.  By Dockside standards it was nowhere near crowded, but on a planet?  When they had all that space?

Connor had accepted his lot in prison.  He had tried very hard to adjust to his new life.  In that moment, however, staring out that window, never had he wanted more to go home.  Wherever the hell home was.

That horrible noise happened again, the sound of something badly misaligned, as the door slid open.

“After you, Mr. Spogelse,” the thin man said.

{Musical Note — this song has no link to the scene above, I linked it because, well, it’s a great freaking song. It is also why I love music — I mean, c’mon, this song was a huge hit that happens to be based on a thousand-year-old poem! Also, I posted a while ago a song from this particular live show, and I will reiterate now what I said then: this video/album resonates with me not just because I love the band, but also because I was actually at this particular concert (at Red Rocks in Denver)}

Snippet: “No, Sir, It’s Not Convenient”

Following on from where I left off a couple of weeks ago because…well…I couldn’t just leave Connor standing there on the street! Also, to those readers and friends who were mad at me for killing off Oz — that part of the story ain’t over yet!

Did the sky look different?

Connor didn’t particularly want to think about that.  Things like sky and weather and horizons had been bad enough while still inside the structured environment of the prison.  On the outside, where chaos and confusion reigned?  Where everything — every thought, every emotion — seemed just that much more intense?  On the outside, those concepts became downright threatening. They were things Connor didn’t want to think about, not at that particular moment, not standing just outside the exit he had never expected to see.

There was a strange sense of loss as he stood there, and of vulnerability. You didn’t have to think in prison, didn’t have to deal with complications.  You didn’t have to do anything in prison.  You just had to survive.  That was why, he had long ago decided, so many inmates were so terrified of actually getting out.

Oh, they would talk about getting out.  They would say all the right things about what they would do when they got out. But as soon as release began to loom as a real possibility?  It was then that they would intentionally screw up and guarantee themselves another year or two inside.  In prison they could find the sanity and security of knowing exactly where they stood.  On the outside they would find nothing but uncertainty and complication.

The front of Chapman Pen was large, but not nearly so big as you would think, given the prison’s true size.  And around that front?  A whole lot of nothing, Connor noted.

Weed covered plots, for the most part, and a few rundown buildings housing what he could only assume were warehouses and small manufacturers.  A couple of hundred feet away, just down the road from the prison, were parked two of the autonomous taxis that were the planet’s only real option for personal, independent transportation for the vast majority of Redux’s population.

A sigh, then, and he took up his guitar and started to walk.  You had to have an account and an implant to use those taxis, and Connor had neither.  Connor, in fact, had no desire for either.  Connor wanted to fly under the radar, to disappear into the crowds and independence of the city’s east side.  He wanted, at the heart of it, to live again in the anonymity that had been his lot for so long.

The sun was out, and the clouds receding, as the planet offered the closest thing it had to a nice evening.  The weather was the final straw, the last incomprehensible in a day that had been full of them. It was too much for Connor, too much to process.  Four years early…why had they let him out four years early?  What the hell was going on?

He could think of nothing to explain it.  Nothing, at least, that did not involve him ending up dead in a ditch somewhere.  Someone, somewhere had pulled strings to release him, and something like that came with a price.  A very, very high price.

He worried, and he thought.  That was nothing new, the worry or the thought.  Those had, in fact, been his habits since most of Dockside had decided the universe would be a better place if it were Connor-free.  Another part of him, however, a part far more primal and basic, could not escape the surge of joy that came with seeing that sky.  He was free.  Everything else aside — all the bullshit and danger, all the demons of his past — he was free.

Freedom meant everything.  Day after day in that prison, night after night in his cell, thoughts and dreams of freedom had been things to avoid, things to fear.  Freedom was…intoxicating.  Worse then the drugs he had been addicted to as an ikiryo, worse than the booze that still was a part of his life, the very thought of freedom set his mind to reeling and spinning.

Freedom was also dangerous.  That was the other part of the joy, the very real fear that asked just what the hell he was going to do now?

For the moment, Connor walked.  No matter what, he knew, he had to keep moving.  If he stopped, it was all too likely he would never again be able to start.

Most of the time, as he walked, he stared at the concrete under his feet.  Bare and cracked and dark it was…crumbling and decayed.  The neighborhood around Chapman Pen hadn’t seen better days, it had never seen so much as a single good day.  Amidst all the confusion and uncertainty, that concrete gave Connor something on which he could focus, so he stared.

What if he stumbled?  What if he fell?  He was smart enough, and remembered enough of Oz’s teachings about philosophy, and about life, to understand the symbolism in that particular fear, but it was very real nonetheless.  If he fell, he wasn’t sure he would ever again find his feet.

Almost a half-mile it was, from the prison to the nearest street corner.  Just what the hell that corner meant, Connor had no idea, but he had to have some kind of goal.  A goal he could see. A goal he could hold to while the universe around him spun and whirled in the purest chaos and confusion. So he walked.  He walked toward that corner.  He walked with his eyes fixed on the decrepit concrete and his mind working desperately to make sense of something that should never have been possible.

Connor had lived a life where the smallest detail, the tiniest clue, could mean the difference between survival and starvation.  He did not miss things.  To miss things, in his life, meant death, and he was still very much alive.

Still, he missed the hum of an engine.  The whoosh of air.  Even the squeal and complaint from its tires as the van turned sharply around.  The smell and noise as that same van swerved in front of him and slammed to a stop?  That he did not miss.

Wait…what aho with a private vehicle that would be interested in him?  That was a question unpleasantly easy to answer.  That answer brought a cold, quiet chuckle that told of fatalism, and of reality.

“It won’t be long now, Oz,” he whispered under his breath.  A bit melodramatic, he knew, but fuck it…if Dockside’s Families were going to kill him, he might as well go overboard while he still had the chance.

It was black, that vehicle.  Black and large, with heavily tinted windows.  And that observation brought its own laugh, sardonic and all-too-knowing.  “Oh, for fuck’s sake, can we skip the cliches?” he complained in that same low voice.  Then he started to laugh.

“Jesus Christ, Spog,” he could almost hear Oz’s voice, almost see his smile.  “If you’re laughing when the gurentai come to kill you, how are they supposed to take you seriously?”

A grinding sound, like an airlock hatch poorly balanced and out of its track, and the broad side door of the vehicle slide open.  Two men stepped out, their eyes fixed solely on Connor.

One was indeed the proverbial gurentai: big, athletic, and with eyes that said every other human was something he would prefer to scrape off the bottom of his shoe.  The second, on the other hand, was someone completely different.

Oh, he was just as tall — as was everyone on this world, so far as Connor could tell — but his tight, closely-tailored suit hugged and defined a body as rail-thin as Connor’s used to be.  Brown hair turning grey, and faded blue eyes, said that slenderness had nothing to do with youth, while the expensive suit said it had nothing to do with the ravages of starvation.

Why the hell would anyone want to look an underfed adolescent?  Connor shook his head and refrained — barely — from laughing out loud.  In a short life that had seen and known far too much, this had to be the most ridiculously surreal scene he had ever experienced.

When that slender man spoke, however, his clear voice carried a tone and accent that everything Connor had learned of Redux said belonged only to the rich and powerful.  “Mr. Spogelse, it’s good to see you finally free.  My employer would like to speak with you, if it’s convenient.”

This time there was no stopping Connor’s chuckle, as bitter and cynical as it was.  No, sir, it’s not convenient, he wanted to say.  The eyes of that gurentai, however, were answer enough.  Connor was getting into that vehicle one way or the other.  Shou ga nai.

Oh, very definitely, shou ga nai.

Connor shrugged to show his acceptance and stepped forward to sit where the looming thug pointed.

Freedom had been nice while it lasted.

Snippet: “Out”

A few steps inside the heavy security door and the sergeant turned, opened another door, this one simple and nondescript.  Inside was a small office, used mainly to hold for discipline any inmate who acted out on the yard.

They’d found the booze, Connor decided.  That was worth a cringe and a worry, but it wasn’t the end of the world.  Quite why they had pulled him so abruptly, and so openly, out of the yard, however, was a question he couldn’t answer.  He wasn’t sure he wanted the answer.

Prison was a place of rhythm and regularity, for bachu as much as inmate.  No matter what happened, you could predict the what and when, and even the why, of how folks would act.  The habits and the rules — the techniques of survival, even — created a world where change was feared, and unpredictability all-but nonexistent.

Inside that office was not what Connor expected.  Handcuffs and an uncomfortable chair, yes.  A confrontation about the pruno, yes.  But the warden of the entire damned prison?  That he did not expect.

There was a hell of a lot more going on than any jug of fermented fruit juice, Connor decided.

The sergeant knew it too, his face said.  The set of his shoulders, and the pace of his breathing, told a story of his own tension and worry.  The other guards were still outside and talking quietly across the wide hall when the sergeant closed the door, as silent and tense as was Connor himself.

The simple click of a lock had never been so loud.

A glance, then, at his blood-covered right knee and Connor breathed a silent curse.  Nothing he could do about that.  At least his hands were steady.  On the surface, he was as calm and confident as he’d ever been running a scam.  On the inside?  On the inside was a different story.

The warden studied him for several moments.  An unremarkable man, he was thickset and greying and about Connor’s own height.  Connor was no giant, but at a few inches over six feet he had grown used to being one of the tallest among Dockside’s relatively short population.  Since his arrival on Redux, however, he had found he no longer stood out for his height.  He wasn’t quite sure how he felt about that change.

The quiet lasted for several seconds.  Once upon a time, the tension and stress in that cramped little room would have made Connor twitch with nerves.  Now, instead of shifting and babbling nervously, he simply stared.  No matter what was coming, he decided, he would make this bastard work for it.

It was the sergeant who shifted from foot to foot, who finally broke the silence.  “Sir…”

The warden raised a hand and finally spoke, his voice short and full of tension that did not show on his face, “We’re going for a walk, Sergeant.  You stick with this kid, and follow me.”

That was it.  No explanation, no hint as to why the damned warden had pulled in a simple prisoner for a private conference.  Connor did not like where this was going.

This wasn’t about illicit booze, no sir.  This had to be something bigger.

The Bimyo Family.

He didn’t know where that thought came from, and didn’t want to know.  He may have ruined the Bimyo, but the remaining Families had long, long arms…and even longer memories.  Had the time come to pay — finally — the rest of the price for those events of a year ago?

He wasn’t entirely sure he would be opposed to that.  When you’ve got nothing left, who really gives a damn about survival?

Besides, if all the books and poems were true, he’d get to see Oz again.  Life had been…less, since he’d comforted his friend into death.  Into the death Connor had caused.

There were certain routes within the prison designed to control the movement of prisoners.  Corridors divided by heavy, remotely operated doors and numerous security measures far beyond the visible.

They did not follow a single one of those routes.

Instead, the warden led Connor on what he could only think of as a shortcut.  A route through side passages and guards-only spaces that the prisoners saw only to mop and clean.

A shrug, then, more mental than physical.  Shou ga nai.  Whatever was going to happen, was going to happen.  He was just along for the ride.

There were special rooms for interrogations.  Just as there were rooms for meetings with lawyers, and others for hearings and disciplinary proceedings.  To none of those did they go.  That did get Connor thinking, if only to wonder just what new way to mess with him the universe had dreamed up.

They moved through a heavy door Connor had never seen before, and into a long hall lined with offices.  And at the end of that hall?  They went through another of the heavy, centrally operated doors and stepped into the…admin and processing center?

What the fuck?

That big room was quiet now.  Behind the counters and desks, the guards Connor knew so well from his shifts cleaning and working in there were typing and working away.  Not one looked up.  Very, very obviously, not one looked up.  What damned inmate was led outside of the secured corridors and through the back-offices by the warden?  No one wanted to know.

Connor didn’t want to know, either.

A call from the warden shattered the silence.  “Emily, I need you for a minute.”

A dark-haired head looked up from the long admissions counter.  That head belonged to someone Connor knew well.  She was short and pretty, that guard.  She gave him the computer time when he was done cleaning the place.  She had given him the guitar.

Well, shit.

The last thing Connor wanted was to get anyone else in trouble.  Especially a bachu who had gone out of her way to be nice to him.  Life could get very unpleasant if things went any more wrong.

A brief conversation with the warden, whispered and far too low for Connor to follow, then she waved at him to follow.  They stepped to a station on the far side of the room, quiet and away from the curious guards at the admissions counter.

A backwards glance showed the warden in conversation with the sergeant.  The rest of the bachu were still staring in studious — and completely unproductive — silence at their screens.

Emily began barking questions at him, rapid and incessant.  A year ago, he would have planned and carefully crafted the answers he gave.  He would have played the game to outmaneuver and fool the system.  Now?  Now, there was no point.

Place of residence?  None.  Family?  None.  Job?  None.

It was pure theater.  There was not a single guard in Chapman Pen who did not know that Connor had come in from the outer edge of the star system with nothing but the clothes on his back.

They were at that console far longer than Connor would ever have thought possible.  He was an ikiryo, one of the unseen and the unwanted, so why ask questions you knew had no answer?

As long as it took — a half-hour, if he had to guess — there was still a whirlwind feel to the whole thing.  When the questions were done, and the incessant typing and coding of information, Emily stood and led him around the corner and into a secluded area.  Two showers this area held, along with a door that led to the property room.  Connor stared at Emily’s back, wondered just what the hell she thought she was doing.

Not even for her, not even for one of the few who treated him decently, who treated him like a human, would he prostitute himself.  A dozen names he could give her, of inmates who would come back here and fuck her brains out for nothing more than an extra ration of coffee.  But not him.  Connor would scam and he would steal, but he would not sell himself.  Too well did he know the hell to which that led.

She put her hand on the door and looked back at him, met his gaze for several seconds.

“Connor,” she said, very quietly, “I don’t know what you’re into…and I get the feeling I don’t want to know.  But no one gets an order from Government House itself to be released as part of a transfer to a different prison.  I don’t know what you’re into, but you really need to be careful.”

With those last words, she disappeared behind the door and into the property room.

Released?  Transferred?  What the fuck was she talking about?

Connor very badly wanted a few minutes — or, better, a few hours — to sit and process just what the hell was happening to him.

Instead, he just stood there, feeling like there was something he should be doing.  He had no idea what that something was, however, so he just stood.  Like a lump, he stood.  And waited.

Several minutes later Emily was back, her hands full.  In her left was a trash bag, simple and black and not very full, while in her right…in her right was a guitar case.  Connor could barely swallow.

A nod of her head at the second shower, its curtain drawn closed, and she said, “Your old clothes are in there.  Get changed.”

Those old clothes…they hadn’t fit well before, and they would fit even worse now.  Connor hadn’t grown all that much, but he had put on a final inch or so.  And the rail thin body he had once owned had filled out by a good thirty pounds of muscle and bulk.

His first look at the faded blue pants and the soft, worn red shirt gave his heart a lift.  They raised the specter of…not returning home — he could never go home, not again — but of returning to the life he had once known.  A few seconds to put on those clothes and he realized just how impossible it was to ever return to what he had been.  He was not the same person he once had been.  No more than the universe itself was the same place.

No, it was a whole new existence he had to embrace.

And that, for some reason, was the saddest thing of all to him.

Clad as the person he no longer was, he stepped outside the curtain.  Emily took a moment to study him, then gave a nod.  A half-smile she gave, then, one that promised…things.  Things Connor was not prepared to deal with.  Not then, not with the universe itself fucking with him.

Her smile faded and she reached forward to hand him the trash-bag.  “Connor…I…” she hesitated.   A moment to breathe, then, and she continued, “Dockside might have had its problems, but you have no idea what it’s like out there.  The corporations…”

A hesitation and she glanced down at the patch on her right shoulder.  The patch for one of the biggest corporations in the entire star system.  A breath and she continued, “These corporations, they own everybody.  Don’t fuck with ’em.  Please.  My brother…he works in HR for 3G.  If you need a job…”

Her voice let the question hang, and her eyes…they still promised those unspoken things, still held things bigger than just bachu and ikiryo.

He smiled at her, then.  He had always prided himself on his ability to manipulate anybody.  Well, anybody except Oz.  But this girl?  This dirtside bachu with no grasp of reality?  Why couldn’t he manipulate her?

Because she mattered to him.

No.  Nothing mattered to him, he told himself.  Fuck ’em all.  The only people who mattered were a year dead.  Everyone else was there to serve his needs, whether they knew it or not.

What about Nat?

That particular thought was silenced, but not quickly enough.  No, not nearly quickly enough.

He stepped out of the now-open shower and took the two bags.  One he didn’t give a shit about, but the other?  The other mattered a great deal.  A very great deal.

The hall was not long, about twenty feet. It ended at a heavy door.  Were he back Dockside, he would have called it an airlock.  But dirtside?  Who knew what the hell these idiots called things?

A touch on his arm, and he looked back.  Emily’s eyes were sad…and carried more than a hint of worry.  She held out an envelope for him, one big enough to hold any number of things. 

“Anyone who gets released gets a voucher for a few days at a hostel,” she explained, her voice halting and quiet.  “There’s also the money you had left in your commissary account.  Plus, well, a few of us…a few us collected some cash for you.”

Her eyes shifted from her feet to Connor’s face, to his eyes.  “Be careful, Connor.  This isn’t Dockside.  The cops…be careful of the corporations.”

What the fuck had she been about to say?

She pressed a second envelope into his hand.  “You don’t have an implant.  These are some contact numbers for folks who can help you,” she said, her voice even more nervous than her eyes.

She was ten feet away, down the cramped, short corridor before he could think of a single thing to say.

The heavy door groaned as it slid open.

He stepped through, envelopes stashed in a pocket, a mostly empty trash bag in one hand and a battered, priceless guitar in the other.

The outer door was still closed, and he had to wait while the one behind slid oh-so-slowly closed.

In front of him, there was a sigh of air as the pressure equalized, then the outer door started to move aside.

“Go forth and sin no more,” a voice intoned over the PA system, derisive laughter barely hidden behind the attempt at funereal import.

Fucking assholes.

Connor hesitated for several seconds, then, and that surprised him.

What was he doing?

Whatever was happening, he had only one choice.

He stepped through that last door, the black plastic bag left behind like the useless trash it was, and emerged from Chapman Pen bearing only two envelopes and the guitar that had saved his sanity.

There were clouds chasing the setting sun, and a cool breeze.  He could hear the howl of a nearby train as it signaled its arrival to the rest of the city.

He stepped forward and looked around.  There was no one.  No cars.  No people.  Just cement, dark and rough, and the graffitied, battered buildings that announced the presence of a prison in their neighborhood far better than every could any sign.

A deep breath, and Connor started to walk.

{Musical Note — Oh yeah, given the scene above (and the hints of the “missing” character) picking this song was easy…}