Snippet: “After you…”

*sigh*

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…}

Snippet: The Youngest Kid

Okay, so…I have a couple of posts that I’m trying to work through. Unfortunately, those posts need some thought and attention before I’ll be ready to free them from my Drafts folder. I still want to post something, however.

I could go all random and weird and try to throw something together…or I could do some flashfiction…

Naw, neither of those appeal to me right now.

You know what I haven’t done in ages?  I haven’t posted any snippets from my real stuff! Well, then, there’s the answer!

I tried to pick up the scenes from where I left off oh-so-long ago, so hopefully this will make sense to those of you who have been around awhile. A suggestion for those who are new: if you search for posts with “snippet” in the title, you will find my earlier scenes from Somewhere Peaceful to Die and The Silence That Never Comes

Err…also…a warning for new folks: I curse. A lot. I curse in real life, and I curse in my writing. Yes, my stuff qualifies (sort of) as “Young Adult” material, but my characters are streetkids and criminals. Also, I use slang from different languages almost as much as I curse. You will see a number of words in italics in the snippet below — in this particular story, those words come mostly from Czech and Polish, with a dash of Russian thrown in.

Whew, that was a lot of caveats and addendums! Let’s move past that crap and see what Connor is up to:

Connor wasn’t sure if he loved the sky, or if he hated it.  A bit of both, then.  All to go with his healthy dose of fear, of course.

His work in the prison’s admin center kept him busy on most days.  It especially kept him busy when the other inmates were released into the outdoor exercise yard.  On those days when he did manage to go outside, it was all he could do to keep moving, and to maintain his focus.  A part of himself, deep and primal, wanted simply to stand and gape at all that air hanging over his head.

Connor had operated in space. He had floated — quite literally — in the middle of nothing.  But that, somehow, was less disturbing than the partially-overcast grey and blue expanse of a dirtside sky.  He understood planets, and knew the basic physics of the universe, but he had grown up in a world of hulls and passages and crowded cargoholds.  Every time he looked at the sky, there was always that little-boy wonder at the back of his mind: what kept it all in place?

The yard was big; big enough to swallow the two thousand inmates that were Chapman Pen’s reason for being.  Most of those inmates clustered in tight groups scattered around the yard.  Connor knew those groups, and what they represented.  They were the gangs.  Very few in prison could survive on their own, and the gangs were the easiest way to gain allies and defenders…for a price.  There was always a price.

Connor hadn’t joined the gangs back home, and he certainly wasn’t going to do so here.  Fucking gurentai…no, they were rvac now!  Whatever he called them, they never changed.  They were just as stupid on Redux as they had been Dockside.

“I swear to fuck, these debil get weaker every year,” Brian snorted derisively as they passed one such group while he walked at Connor’s side.

From Connor’s other side, Rahm answered with a laugh, “Not our problem anymore, kamos.  We’re out of the game.  Let the kids have their fun.  They don’t need you lecturin’ them ’bout the good ol’ days.”

Brian just shook his head and grumbled under his breath.

Connor chuckled at the banter.  The vast majority of those in the yard were simple prison-toughs; posturing fools who would’ve been eaten alive Dockside.  But Brian and Rahm…Connor knew guys like them.  He’d never asked the two old men about their lives before Chapman Pen, but rumor and the respect with which they were treated painted a picture far more clearly than any answers they would ever have given.

A turn at the end of the yard and they began to walk back the way they had come.  Redux was a cold world, and Connor walked bundled in a heavy coat that had earned a great deal of mocking from the other two.

Brian swung his big, bare arms — both covered in tatoos from shoulder to fingertips — and gave Connor a bit of a shove.  “You want to get used to livin’, what do you call it, dirtside?  You better ditch the fuckin’ jacket, kamos.”

“It’s a fashion choice,” Connor laughed.  “I’m makin’ a statement.”

A pause to eye three rvac walking towards them and Connor sighed, “Do pice.”

Two were nobodies, the simple goons you could find anywhere.  The one in the middle, however…he was the leader of one of the new, up-and-coming gangs.  Shotcallers, those gang leaders were called, and they did just that, call the shots for their followers.  And for their victims.

Connor had been waiting for this.  Brian and Rahm had too much history, and reputations far too large, to be harassed.  But the youngest guy in the entire prison?  Whatever reputation Connor had built over the last several months didn’t matter, a confrontation was inevitable.  The various shotcallers did not like the idea of an independent.

From the corner of his eye Connor saw Brian’s small shrug.  This was Connor’s problem.  It had to be his problem — to seek protection would mark him forever as weak…as a victim.

Maybe thirty, the leader was.  His thinning hair was shaved to the scalp in front and grown long in back.  The tattoos on his face shifted and writhed in the wan sunlight, changing colors and designs in a random dance.  Very popular, those dynamic tattoos were…and stupid as shit, to Connor’s mind.  How the hell were you supposed to blend into any crowd with a bunch of random squiggles moving all over your face?  Fucking debil.

The leader was taller than Connor, and significantly broader.  He offered tiny nods to the old men at Connor’s shoulders, then took up an aggressive stance that blocked Connor’s path in the most offensive way possible.

Here it comes, Connor thought.

“Yo, little teplousi,” the man drawled, every syllable dripping derision.

It was meant to be threatening, of course, but Connor had been threatened — and almost killed — by people who cut people’s tongues out for fun.  This?  This was minor league kecas.

“You wanna get the fuck out of my way?” he answered, his voice quiet and cold.

“Naw, you got it all twisted,” the shotcaller answered with a sneer.  He paused to glance at Brian and Rahm, a large step back from Connor now, before he continued, “Don’t go all pissy on me.  These two, your friends, they got their own shit.  But you…I hear shit ’bout you, ya know, and I wanna be your friend, too.”

Yep, exactly according to the script.  Connor would retort, then the insults and threats would start flying back and forth.  A bit of that, then they’d get to the yelling and shoving.  A choice, Connor had: he could give in to their little recruitment drive, or have all three beat the shit out of him.  Or he could go with option number three.

Do haje,” he whispered, his voice more than half-sigh.

“What’s that?” the other asked, leaning close as he struggled to hear.

“I don’t have time for this shit,” Connor barked even as his knee slammed into the shotcaller’s groin.  The barest half-second of stunned silence, then the guy gave a strangled scream and tried to curl up, clutching himself.  Connor’s hands had tangled in the long, greasy hair, however, and he held the man’s head at waist height as his knee again swung upwards…repeatedly.

Not much more than two seconds after Connor’s words, the shotcaller was on the ground, writhing and groaning in pain as blood poured from the shattered wreck of his face.

The two goons may not have been stellar examples of human intelligence, but they did know their jobs.  A roar from each throat and they stepped together towards Connor.

Zatim ne,” Brian said calmly.  Just talking ’bout the weather.

The two hulking rvac paused to glance at the shorter man, the anger on their faces turned to confusion.  Brian raised a finger and the confusion turned to fear.  That was it.  No yells, no threats, not so much as a stern look.  A raised finger…one fucking finger.  And they stopped.

Even with his own shit to take care of, Connor was deeply impressed.  And very, very glad Brian was on his side.

Connor bent over and again grabbed that lank, dirty hair.  The groans became another scream when Connor jerked the shotcaller’s head up.  He leaned close and gave that convenient handhold a little shake.  “This is as close as I’ll come to a warning, curacek.  You fuck with me again and things’ll go downhill fast.  I got nothing to prove, and even less to lose.  I don’t give a fuck…about anything  You do not want to press an ikiryo who’s got nothin’ left, you really don’t.”

It was hard to say what was in that face.  Connor couldn’t decide if the eyes held terrified agreement or total agony, and he didn’t particularly care.  The debil understood the point.  That was what mattered.

All six men in that little knot of anger and survival knew the score; in places like Chapman Pen, you survived on reputation.  A failure like this— getting your ass kicked by the youngest kid in the entire prison — meant the loss of whatever power and position the shotcaller had once held.  And quite possibly the loss of life, too.

Shou ga nai.

Connor was ready to step past the crying, moaning idiot on the ground when another voice called from a few yards away, “Spogelse, what the fuck is going on here?”

The sergeant.

Connor sighed.  The sergeant might have glossed over Connor’s little booze-making operation, but sending another prisoner to the hospital wouldn’t be quite so easy to ignore.

“Thergeant thith piethe of thit attacked me!” the crying, bleeding aho on the ground called out.  The blood and missing teeth made him almost impossible to understand.

The sergeant looked down, his face unreadable and his close-cropped gray hair as neat as ever.  “I didn’t see a damn thing.  I’ll have to look into that.”  The sergeant’s dark eyes, full of knowledge and experience, shifted to stare at Connor.

Connor could swear there was…something else in them.  Pity?  Sympathy?  Confusion?  What the hell was going on?

“Spogelse, the Captain needs to see you.  Now,” the sergeant said in a voice that held all of those things, and a great deal more.

Connor stared back, unable to find a single word.  He still had all of the fight’s adrenaline and violence flowing through him, and to instantly shift gears to something so different was beyond him.

“Let’s go,” the sergeant continued.  A wave of his hand and two more guards, young bachu Connor did not know, stepped up to flank him.  Brian and Rahm drifted back, making room for the guards.  They were just as confused as Connor.

This was not good, Connor thought, but what the hell was he going to do?  Take on three guards, when another thirty were just seconds away?  Yeah, that would end well.

He sighed and stepped forward, meekly following the sergeant and wondering just when the universe would stop screwing with him.

Every single eye in the yard was on him as he stepped through the door into the prison itself.  Just as, he knew, every single mind was wondering what the hell the obnoxious, dangerous Dockside kid had done to earn a special trip to the Captain’s office.