Heavy footfalls found their way through dark city streets, making their way through a maze of back alleys. Looking over their shoulder, the individual checked to ensure they were making their way without being followed. Small amounts of nearby apartment lights reflected off of their goggles before they pulled their hood over their head and continued deeper into the rainy streets. The footsteps slowed as the individual faced a wall; they grinned.
“Finally, a dead end.”
The individual started to feel around the cluttered walls that surrounded them, grasping at every pipe, protrusion, and handhold they could get their hands on. Their black fingerless gloves were now soaked and covered in the grim that lined everything. Cold and shaking, they accidentally slipped a finger through a hole in the wall, feeling a cold metal at their fingertip.
“Strange, now what would there be smooth metal behind a brick wall?”
Lowering their head, they pulled out a small pen torch and shone it through the hole, constantly moving their head to try and get an advantageous look. Finding the right angle, they stared but could not figure out what they were looking at. Pushing their head against the wall in frustration, they turned off their light and pocketed it, giving one last look before going to stand up but stopping in a half squat. They lowered themselves again, sheltering the hole with their hands. They noticed a red light.
Pulling a finger from their pocket, they removed a ring, tossing the finger to the ground. Holding up the ring, they inspected it, rubbing their fingertip over an inlaid diamond.
“If this works, guess that means I owe my guy some money.”
They placed the ring on their thumb and directed the diamond upwards; inserting their finger, they heard a little click, and a nearby drain bracket extended from the wall. Keeping their hand inside their coat, they rested a hand on their pistol, grabbed the bracket, and pulled. With great effort, they felt the bracket shift, dragging a door-sized chunk from the wall. Using all their might, they pulled the hidden door open. Looking up, they found themselves looking at an old man pointing a gun towards their head.
“Why did you come down here? This alley is a dead end?”
“Because dead ends are the greatest doors; you just have to know how to find them.”
A small red light in the corner of the small room turned green.
“Welcome to the dead end; please close the door behind you and pull the handle back through.
The old man put away his gun and returned to his seat, the green glow from his monitors illuminating the small room behind him.
“New visitors have to get an Id card; now hurry up and close the door.”
The individual stood to their feet, closing the door behind them, ensuring that the handle was pulled back through. Proceeding to the next room, they found themselves in a small space facing a black woman sitting behind a desk.
“Do you have a new ring, or is it stolen? As a disclosure, we do not care if it is stolen, but we will need to wipe its credentials to upload yours.”
“Gifted from a friend.”
The woman behind the counter looked up with a face of disbelief.
“yup, ok. Please take a seat and pull back the hood; we need a picture for your Id.”
The individual sat down and pulled back their hood, revealing shoulder-length hair with blue and green tips. Before she could think, there was a flash, and her photo was taken.
“State the name you wish to be identified as; we suggest a fake one.”
“What’s the purpose of a fake name if you have my picture?”
The woman looked up from her monitor, peering past her glasses.
“Is that what you wish to be identified as?”
“What title would you like to be associated with?”
The woman behind the counter groaned and leaned back into her chair.
“A title to either be used instead of your name or in conjunction with your name provided. Rebecca the brave, the midnight lady, aka Rebecca. Do you have a title?”
Rebecca stared blankly at the wall and let out an unintelligible groan.
“That is fine; information can be updated anytime you find a T.D.E. near you. I have all the information I need. Please place your ring in the scanner and wait for the formatting of your… friend’s data to be purged and yours to be uploaded. Do you know how to use the T.D.E ring?”
Rebecca placed the ring on a smallholder and stepped back, watching as the small machine closed around it.
“I don’t; never got the run-through.”
Tilting her chair, the secretary lent back and stared at the ceiling.
“Welcome new, comer, to this, The dead end, otherwise known as a T.D.E. You are here because you have been given or received a T.D.E ring, these rings, as you know, allow access to our facilities. While in our facilities, you will not be able to purchase anything unless you use our specific cryptocurrency. This currency can be purchased at any ATM terminal in our facilities. Note that it cannot be purchased at outside facilities as the currency can only exist on your ring, and our machines are the only ones rigged with a connection to said rings.”
The woman paused for a moment to take in a deep breath.
“Once you have your ring set up, you can then venture forth into the facility you are currently in. It is possible to obtain ranks on your ring as you interact with our society; the higher your rank, the deeper you can go, and the rarer the things you will find. Ranking can be achieved through competitions with one another, completing official jobs listed on our boards, and servicing the higher ranks. We hope you enjoy your stay and spend generously to all vendors, but we hope you will spend a little more at this T.D.E’s official stall. Thank you, and remember, dead ends are just doorways.”
Rebecca took her ring from the machine as it opened, putting it back onto her thumb. The woman behind the counter gestured towards a door for her to exit; there was no handle, just another hole in the wall with the red light of a scanner.
“Actually, can I add a title? I just thought of one.”
The woman grabbed the bridge of her nose and groaned as she dramatically placed her hands back onto her keyboard.
“Please place your ring back into the machine and tell me exactly what you want.”
Rebecca did as asked.
“The title I want is, The Space Owl.”
The secretary typed quickly, her eyes darting around the screen.
“That name is unassigned. Welcome to The dead end, Space Owl.”
Rebecca picked up her ring and headed through the doors to a large underground market. The very sight of it left her stunned in the doorway, staring out. A male individual walked past, pushing her out of the way.
“Get out of the doorway; damn, newcomers are getting stupider.”
Rebecca glared out at the man walking into the crowd.
“Stupid was making that remark; now let’s see what you can get me.”
Rebecca ran up to the man as he was browsing some exotic-looking fruit.
“My gosh, this stuff looks crazy. You were right; I am pretty new here; do you think you could lead me around?”
Grabbing around his arm, she smiled up at him.
“Urgh, new to T.D.E and deceptive flirting too. You’re a loser. Good luck in here; you might last till the end of the day.”
The man pulled himself from her grasp and walked off into the crowd.
“Yea, well, shit. Now I have to kill you.” Rebecca muttered under her breath.
The man wandered the market as Rebecca tailed behind him. After a few hours, the man headed towards the exit, leaving the crowds and markets behind him. Rebecca followed at a distance, making sure to give the man time to leave before heading out behind him. As she stepped out into the rain, a fist silently struck from dark corners as her goggles were crushed against her face. Knocked to the ground she quickly raised her hands to attempt to remove the glass from her eyes.
“Look at that; I was wrong; you won’t last the day. Dumb bitch, you are not very good at tailing people, either. Is there anything you are good at?”
After clearing her eyes, she tossed her goggles to the ground; sitting against a wall, she lowered her head.
“Summed me up; I am pretty shit at all of this. But that is ok because I have friends to look out for me.”
The furthest building from Rebecca housed a man lying across a balcony with a large rifle and an earpiece. The man watched as Rebecca’s assailant grabbed at his wrist, pressing a large button. A series of black hexagons started to appear around his body, originating from his watch.
“Nice try, buddy.”
With the grip of the trigger, a red-hot round sped through the alley, screaming its way towards its target. The black hexagons appeared around the man’s shoulder but failed to generate around him entirely as the round snuck past his shield and pierced his right shoulder, the round colliding with the wall millimeters above Rebecca’s bowed head. Body twisting, the man fell to the cold ground; Rebecca grabbed her knife and struck at the watch, colliding with the black hexagons.
“That is a magnetic field; no metal can pass. Improvise a weapon.” The rifle-wielding friend cried through his headset.
Rebecca had her throat grabbed as the man screamed, blood flying from his mouth like rain it covered her face. Scooping up the glass from her goggles, she scraped it against his eyes with one hand, grabbing the watch with her other. A foot placed against his chest, she pushed, pulling at the watch. She managed to rip it from his wrist. The black hexagons began to fade, and the man loosened his grip. Falling backward into the alley.
Rebecca pulled her pistol from under her cloak and started firing rounds at the man. The black hexagons, still fading, stopped the first rounds, quickly disappearing, and flesh started cooking as the highly heated rounds cooked holes through the man. The firing stopped, but the man did not; he continued his plunge toward the ground before finding a resting place in the middle of a pothole. The rain sizzled off the end of the custom pistol, Rebecca’s breath obscuring her view until her friend made his way down to her.
“You know you can lower your pistol now; the guys are dead.”
“I can’t lower my arms.” Rebecca spoke through tightly gripped teeth.
“Geeze, you have killed people before; why the drama?”
“Jack, I am paralyzed. I can’t move.”
Jack finally clicked; he looked as Rebecca spoke. Her eyes were still locked, and her body shaking lightly.
“Oh damn, that is a last fuck you now, isn’t it? The watch must have had a paralytic substance on it.”
Grabbing a small capsule from his back pocket Jack walked over, kneeling down, he cracked it under her nose.
“We have around five minutes before that takes effect. I am going to loot this guy while we wait. See what we got.”
Jack sifted through the man’s belongings, piling the spoils down in the rain.
“I think that watch was the best thing this guy had, that and his ring to T.D.E. Now we both have one. We can scrounge up a win from this, but not a good one. He didn’t even have any cash on him.”
Rebecca’s body relaxed, and she lowered her arm.
“Most people in there won’t have cash; they have to use a cryptocurrency to make purchases in T.D.E. It is uploaded to the ring but inaccessible unless you are the owner. Guess the failsafe is there to stop people from murdering for money.”
“Most people can’t work a computer like you, though; think you can break into it?”
Rebecca stood up, packing away her pistol and the watch.
“Without a ring of my own, I don’t think I could. But seeing as I do, I say we go back to yours and see if we can rob a dead man.”
Jack and Rebecca started to walk back down the alley as the rain started to let up.
“So, how did you pick your target? See him spending money, or was he able to head deeper in than you were?”
“Na, he called me an idiot. Twice.”
“You need to sort that out; it is going to get you killed.”
“Not today, it won’t; today, it gets us paid.”
The two made their way back to an apartment building, where they stood in front of a numbered door inside.
“Jack, I swear to all the powers that be, if you have lost your key card, I will destroy this door.”
Jack started to desperately pat down his pockets as Rebecca aimed her pistol at the door lock, cocking it.
“Found it! Put your gun away, you damn trigger-happy psycho.”
“I would like to point out this would have been the fourth time this month you would have lost a key card. I am getting a little tired of it.”
“Whatever, don’t shoot my stuff. Let’s just see if we can decode this ring.”
They both walked into the apartment.
“What is this nonsense? I am the one decoding it.”
“Using my technology. Now let’s get going.”
Jack handed over the ring to Rebecca; she wandered over to a computer and sat down. Switching on the many screens and booting the pc.
“I am going to be here a while; bring me food and something hot to drink.”
“Yes, your highness, you know I also do work for these jobs.”
“Yea must have been so hard lying down on a sheltered porch; all I had to do was tail someone for hours and eventually get punched in the face. Not only breaking my goggles but scaring my face too. But hey, you do things too.”
“Because getting on that porch was super easy, not like I didn’t have to subdue the inhabitants or even fire a round to hit a target with a shield activating around him. Not only did my round need to hit, but it also had to miss the dumbass sitting in the line of fire. Then, I had to take the same idiot back to my house, where she threatened to destroy my property. So yea, I do things.”
Rebecca was too engrossed with the screen in front of her, examining the data that was being presented.
“Now you are too busy to even listen. I am going to make this coffee, but I am not going to be happy about it.”
Jack made a coffee and managed to toast a couple bits of toast.
“Coffee, black, like your humor. Toast, slightly burnt with nothing on it, just the way you like it.”
“Cheers, you’re a good accomplice, Jack. T.V?”
“Are you finished breaking into the ring?”
“God, no, that is going to take a long time; they are very sophisticated. Probably a couple of days, actually.”
“But you have decided to watch TV instead?”
“Idiot, I use a program that I made to crack it. Did you think that I was going sit down and type for three days straight?”
Jack stared at Rebecca, un-amused.
“If all you were going to do is set up a damn .exe, why did I have to make your shitty food?”
“Because I am lazy. That is why I like your place. It is so small that it takes like three steps to get from one thing to another.”
Rebecca slumped down into the couch, sinking into the worn cushions.
“Going to join me?”
Jack walked off into another room, coming back with a blanket.
“Gets cold in here at night, don’t feel like waking up as a Popsicle.”
Jack sunk down into the couch next to Rebecca, covering them both with a blanket. Eventually, finding themselves asleep. Rebecca awoke to her face hard pressed against Jack’s shoulder. Drooling slightly, she felt a hand push her head upright.
“I forget you drool when you sleep; you’re the morning person; make eggs.”
Jack rolled himself in the blanket and laid back down as Rebecca was exposed to the cold morning air. Reluctantly she stood up and walked over to the kitchen, taking a quick look at the monitor as she went.
“Looks like it is going to be at least three days, maybe four. We should sell off the crap we got and disinfect that watch. It might come in handy.”
“Might? Those are super expensive; they are very handy.” Jack said, his eyes still closed.
“Can’t be that helpful, didn’t do much for that one guy. Also, you have no eggs.”
“Hard to fight against a sniper rifle, and I am aware that I have no eggs. Get eggs, cook eggs, feed me eggs.”
“You are not worth that much effort, but I would like to eat. I am going to get eggs, but they are mine, not yours. But because I somewhat like you, I will let you choose what kind of eggs.”
“I don’t know some form of lizard; I hate bird eggs.”
“Yeah, sure, anything is better than duck, chicken, or even those nasty little quail eggs.”
“Got it, you had bird eggs; I will be back shortly. I assume you will be in the same position.”
Jack rolled over, burying his face in the back of the couch. Rebecca grabbed his swipe card and left the building; walking out onto the street, she shielded her eyes from the morning light beaming through the skyscrapers above her.
“Now, to find a market.”
Rebecca headed down the street, keeping her eyes open for local markets. The skyscrapers tv’s broadcasts are still easily visible during the morning light. As she made her way down the street, she noticed as the storefronts started to open. Slapping a nearby cafe worker on the ass, she winked at him and walked away. His face gave light to a massive grin, and his cheeks flushed red as he watched Rebecca pull the next corner out of sight. Rebecca pulled out the wallet she fished from the worker filtering through it, groaning she threw it away, pocketing a few notes.
“What did I expect from a damn Cafe worker? Enough for eggs, at least.”
A hand grasped the base of Rebecca’s jacket, she turned to see no one. Again there was a slight tug; she looked down to see a homeless man.
“Ye keep talking to ya shelf, people wal thunk ya mad. MAD!”
Rebecca pulled her coat free of the man’s grasp and knelt in front of him.
“Sometimes it is better to be thought mad; it makes people less suspecting of you. But you should know about that, shouldn’t you, Percy?”
Rebecca dropped a small note into his cup and stared the crazed man in his eyes.
“Got any news for me?”
The man’s left eye stopped bouncing to the side and locked with Rebecca’s, his face taking a serious tone, as did his voice.
“Well, nothing worth a little penny.” The man shook his cup and yelled.
“Plese marm joost a cup moore.”
Rebecca dropped a larger note in, looking back at Percy with expectation.
“Well, first things first, for the first note, I will give you this. There is a local food market one block that way.”
The man pointed down the road; Rebecca squinted and could make out the edge of a stall.
“For that bigger note, I can tell you there is a gentleman there. One who will be cash-heavy, big brown coat and dirty black hair. A rich fellow likes to play poor.”
“How did you know that I was looking for a market? This one, you will tell me for free.”
“You passed about three of us on your way here. One was sitting next to Jack’s apartment and heard you talk aloud about a market. Got to remember we are everywhere.”
“I both love and hate, you walkie-talking bastards. Enjoy your day.”
Rebecca stood and walked away from the man.
“Thank ye, woman.” Yelled Percy as Rebecca crossed the road.
“That man really is really good at playing crazy.”
A man hiding under a pile of cardboard rustled a little before sheepishly muttering.
Rebecca looked down at the man, then back across the road to Percy.
“Nope, just hate you; I hope you hear that, Percy.”
Rebecca made a mental note to not speak aloud for the rest of her journey as she made her way to the market. Making sure to make an extra effort to take note of the homeless people on the street. She thought to herself.
‘Damn, no wonder these guys know everything. There is a new one every twenty meters.’
She kept her focus on them as she made her way into the Alley Market, a long stretch of stalls that seemed to expand at a large cross-section of alleys. Making her way through the crowds, Rebecca found someone selling reptile eggs; upon investigating, she saw they did not have Tuatara. She looked a little disappointed and moved on to find another vendor. She walked into the center of the large crossroad and looked around, making out Percy’s target, but no additional stall selling eggs. Again she looked disappointed.
“This guy better be worth it. To compensate for my lack of good eggs.”
Rebecca made her way across to the thin, dirty man; she spied his pockets and tried peering inside his large overcoat. Trying her best to figure out the best way in. She moved closer, pretending to browse the same stall. She got her fingers ready and was about to stick her hand into a large gaping pocket when she stopped herself. She retracted and moved to a further distance. She looked around and noticed three other individuals keeping keen eyes on him. All of which had fine-looking clothes and earpieces.
“Shit, fucking rich people. Guards make things far more effort-some.”
She felt through her coat, patting down pockets till she felt a couple small balls. She plucked them out and moved back towards the rich man, leaving a small ball at the feet of each of the guards she could spy. Fiddling on her phone, she activated them. They popped open, releasing a white smoke. Clouding the vision in a semi-circle around the rich man. Using the distraction of people running, she started darting in and out of the man’s pockets with lightning speed. With each pocket, she found another wallet with moderate stacks of cash. As soon as she spotted the first bodyguard, she started running with the crowds. Everyone cleared the area, but once nothing more happened, the chaos and fear faded. Everyone resumed their market, and most wrote it off as the few kids who were running around. Rebecca made her way back to the vendor who sold eggs.
“Does it look like I sell Tuatara eggs? Read the sign, then ask an actual question.” The man was very touchy and spoke at a quiet shout.
“Dude, you aren’t even busy. Why the hell are you getting mad for you prick?”
“Just because I am not busy does not mean I tolerate stupid questions.”
Rebecca, still holding one of the smoke bombs, tensed, causing the bomb to activate. She grabbed the closest tray of eggs and walked out of the market, a trail of smoke trailing off her as she walked back onto the street. Walking past Percy, she dropped one of the wallets she pilfered. A none verbal sign of a finished business sounded as Percy tapped his cup three times, followed by him scraping it across the pavement. Arriving back at Jack’s building, she ran up the steps and into the main lobby and started to climb the stairs, singing as she went.
“one, two, three, four
Up again, another floor
Five, six, seven, eight
Come and find me; seal your fate
I’ll sing again till this song’s your final end.”
Reaching her floor, she looked at the number.
“Floor eight looks like you missed me, Penrose.”
She made her way back inside the apartment, where she found Jack in the exact same position on the couch. Making as much noise as possible to ensure Jack woke up. After the few minutes it took to make the eggs, she took them over to Jack.
“Here are your eggs, you lazy piece of; you’re still asleep. How are you still asleep?”
Rebecca kicked Jack till he eventually came to consciousness once again.
“You are going to have to teach me this amazing trick of staying asleep through anything.”
Rolling over, Jack cleared his eyes and sat up.
“Simple, work in the military and only ever run sniper missions. Then when you finish your job and get the chance to sleep, you sleep. Despite the carpet bombing that is happening less than a kilometer away. This ability was seen as a hindrance and added to the list of reasons why I am not in the military anymore. But in the end, they…”
“Let you keep your sniper rifle.” Rebecca interrupted.
“You have told this story a million times; now shut up and eat your damn eggs.”
Jack took a bite, and his nose scrunched up.
“These are damn poultry eggs, aren’t they?”
“Look, it was either mystery eggs grabbed through a smoke bomb, or I throat-punched someone. For better or worse, I chose not to cause a bigger scene and took the mystery eggs.”
Jack finished his mouthful and slowly stared at Rebecca.
“Why was there a smoke bomb? You were going to get eggs; what on earth could have compelled you to drop a smoke bomb?”
Rebecca started to do the dishes.
“Well, I talked to a Percy, and he told me of a mark. Turns out Mark required some smoke bombs; I got out with around three wallets from him. Then I went to get the eggs, but the stall owner was very rude. I happened to have a spare smoke bomb in my hand, which I activated because I squeezed it too hard as I was trying not to throat-punch him. The mystery eggs, and now here we are.”
Jack cleaned his mouth with his tongue, removing the small chunks of eggs from his cheeks.
“Where is my cut?”
“Your cut? What the hell did you do to earn this?”
“I slept; I sent you for eggs; I let you use my equipment. My house, my T.V., my cooking equipment.”
Rebecca sat down next to Jack, taking a big mouthful of eggs and breathing heavily onto him.
“Don’t stress; I was only teasing. You will get your share.”
“You know I don’t mind the smell of the eggs, just the taste.” He took another mouthful and recoiled from the taste, pushing his plate of food away from him.
“What are we going to do while we wait the three days for this software to break into the ring?”
“We could actually explore The dead end?”
“What? No! You don’t get to explore it if I am not there; I was the one who got us the first ring; I want to be there.”
“Fine, you baby. What is your suggestion then?”
Jack adjusted his sitting position, partially laying down.
“We could go up the space elevator and watch some asteroid racing.”
“I do like the races, but that is not something we can do for three days.”
The two sat thinking about their options, a couple of ideas nearly creeping out but being held back.
“How about Hemlock? Who don’t we visit him?”
Rebecca’s eyes opened a little wider and smiled.
“Now, that is a great way to spend three days. Let me finish this up, and we can head off.”
Rebecca and Jack got up and changed into fresh clothes, and headed out the door.
“Jack, do you think his daughter still wants to kill me?”
“I would count on it, but I am not changing plans now. I am already outside.”
“Oh, I am not worried; she is incapable. Let’s go to Hemlock’s!”
Anodyne and Sylum floated in the space above the planet.
“Bellude? Where do you come up with the names for planets?”
Anodyne shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t know, just words come to mind. I like hanging around this one, though, lots of spacecraft flying around.”
“It is definitely more interesting than your last one. The last one still fights with swords; this one is a space-faring civilization that is actively engaging with hundreds of other worlds spread through the galaxy; what is your next one? Is it going to be a universe filled with gods all exploring, worshiping you as the one true god?”
“It is something similar to that. Do you want to see it?”
“Why are you asking? The whole point of this is to show me your new worlds.”
Anodyne stared at Sylum as his eye was pulled by the spaceship races that were about to begin.
“We can leave in an hour if you like.”
Sylum stared at the spacecraft getting ready to take off, ignoring Anodyne as he eagerly awaited the start.
“You watch the races; I think I am going to go down to the surface to solidify my presence a little more. I will see you in a couple of hours.”
Anodyne flew down to the planet, leaving Slyum behind to watch the races.
“Ok then, who wants to play?”