Her Secret [s090]
"You still awake?" he whispered.
"Yeah. You're having trouble falling asleep too?"
"Yeah. Maybe I'm just not used to solid ground again. You?"
It took a few seconds for (2)syl to respond.
"I'm still a bit shaken up from the robots and Calamity and...everything."
This time it took her even longer to respond.
"Actually,...it's more than that. There's something I've got to get off my chest."
"Don't tell me your brand new skinsuit top doesn't fit!"
"Just shut up and let me show you."
(2)syl threw off the covers. "Give me your hand," she said as she tugged at the hem of her skinsuit top.
“Actually, I was just joking about the skinsuit thing.”
The dim lighting barely allowed Phoenix to see syl's hand, which was reaching towards him.
He turned on his side to face (2)syl. She grabbed his hand. What's she up to now? "Errr...Okay. Now what?"
(2)syl lifted the bottom part of her shirt, exposing her stomach. A moment later, she was pressing his hand against it.
What the glitch does she think she's doing!? I know we've saved each other's lives multiple times during these past few days, but this is simply uncalled for! I'm getting my own room next time. Glitching women.
"Ah…syl, I'm not sure this is such a good--"
"Shhh! Don’t say a word."
He realized that his hand was now (forcibly) being guided lower, partially underneath her underwear. He was about to yank his hand back, when she stopped.
"There," she said simply. "Can you feel it?"
He could feel the heat of her body against his hand, which was being gently squeezed between her hand and her abdomen. He could feel the gentle pulse of her heartbeat. He could feel her soft skin, the smoothness of which was unbroken, with two exceptions. He could feel her navel under his thumb, and a few strands of stray hair under his pinky.
"Don't you feel it?"
"Uh..." Every time she spoke, he could feel her diaphragm tense and relax with her words, and in between words, he could feel his hand rise and fall as she breathed.
"Well, even if you can't feel it, I can. Not so much with my hands, but just...inside of me."
I don't feel a thing. Has she lost her mind? Does she think she’s gaining weight? "Umm..."
"Phoenix...can you keep a secret? That's a stupid question. Of course you can. But, will you?"
Here it comes, whatever it is.
She took a deep breath. “Under your hand—under our hands is…life. A new life, a spark within me. Phoenix, I’m carrying a child.”
“You—a child! Really?” he said, slightly excited.
“Yes, really,” she said softly.
“Ah yes…” that would explain, “the morning sickness. Well, congratulations! You certainly don’t look it.”
“I’m sure I will sooner or later.”
“So, who’s the lucky father?”
“Ah. So you don’t remember who it was. I’m sorry. Well, I’m sure one day you’ll be able to find your long lost lover. Or, maybe…he’ll find you,” Phoenix said reassuringly. “And hopefully, I won’t be anywhere around when he does. I haven’t exactly had much experience with jealous boyfriends. Speaking of which, is it okay if I take my hand out of your pants now?”
His Secret [s090]
Her grip on his hand tightened.
“This makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t it?”
He could tell by the tone of her voice that she was smiling.
What the glitch are you thinking? Of course it makes me feel uncomfortable!
“You’re such a liar. Listen, I just told my secret, and I feel so much better now! I’m sure you’ve got something on your shoulders too. I’ll bet you’d feel better if you just let it out.”
“No, because I feel just fine already.”
“Ah. I see. Well, goodnight, then.”
“Well, I thought that since you were so comfortable with it, I’d just let you sleep with it there.”
“You’re not going to give me my hand back until I tell you a secret, are you?”
She’s not going to give up. I suppose I could use force.
“How do I know you’re not going to tell anyone?”
“If I tell anyone, then you can tell everyone that I’m pregnant, and trust me, I’d rather people not know.”
Phoenix sighed. She does have a point there.
“All right. You win, already.”
“So, what’s your secret?”
“Gimme a sec, will ya? I’m trying to think of a good one.”
What could I tell her about? Jazon and the cube? Way too dangerous. The way that dad died? I didn’t even tell Maia that. Oh, that’s it! She knows most of the story already, anyway, so it wouldn’t really be giving away that much, right?
“Okay, got one,” he finally said, shifting to a slightly more comfortable position.
“Yeah, you’re gonna love this one, ‘cause it’s all mushy. Yeah, that’s probably the last thing you’d expect to hear from me—the guy who doesn’t trust women.”
Phoenix paused to collect his thoughts. He thought he saw (2)syl reach for her sever-whip, but he wasn’t sure.
“Over the years, I’ve had three partners, syl. They were all people I…well…trusted in some way or another.”
“What about Rule #1? You broke it?”
“I made exceptions. The truth of the matter, syl, is that you wind up having to trust someone sooner or later. That’s just the way things are, unfortunately. When you have no choice, but to trust someone, make sure that you at least pick someone trustworthy. That was another mistake I made.”
“Anyway, my first partner was my father. I’d trust him with my life, if he were still alive. The second was a man by the name of Lattis. He helped me escape from the Nation of Utopia, in exchange for providing some assistance. It was a one-time deal, but he was a decent guy, and the whole thing went off without a hitch. I’ve never heard from him since. The third…”
Glitch. I’m not sure if I’m really up for this, but it’s too late now.
“The third was a woman named Maia.”
“Is she the one that turned you to the BATs?”
“Yeah, that was her.”
“Ha! I was right! I knew your partner was a woman!”
Phoenix winced in the darkness.
“Yeah…a woman,” he murmured.
“So, tell me about this…woman.”
He paused and took a deep breath.
“Oh, where to begin…”
He paused again.
“Well, what did she look like, maybe?”
“Okay. Well, she was about…let’s see…well, she was shorter than me, but taller than you.”
He closed his eyes.
“Golden hair and blue eyes. The most amazing I’ve ever seen, I thought. I don’t remember why I thought that. I guess it was just because she was so beautiful. It’s funny how you forget things like that. I do remember why I loved her smile, though. It made me feel warm and calm inside like…like everything was right in the world.”
“So, I take it you two were more than just business partners.”
There’s no hiding it now. Already crossed way over the line, and somehow I don’t even care.
“Yeah. Well, originally it was all business, but then, after a while it wasn’t. And, foolishly, I didn’t have a ‘Plan B’ in case that happened.”
“So, what did happen?”
“I’ve asked myself that same question a million times since then.”
“Have you ever had cinnamon loveroot pastries, (2)syl? You probably don’t even remember if you have or not. Well, I’ve had them, and, take my word for it, they’re unbelievably good! I just can’t get enough of them. A little old lady used to sell pastries right outside one of my apartments. Her cinnamon loveroots were the best on the island. Every morning, I’d go down to the corner where her stand was, and buy one or two. Of course, I’d somehow wind up with three or four more in my pockets. Heh.”
“Heh. Yeah. Especially considering that it wouldn’t have even put a scratch in my savings to actually pay for them in full.
“Anyway, one morning, my mouth all set for my daily fix, I walked up to the pastry stand just in time to see a young eyebuzz pay for one pastry while simultaneously nudging a few more, including the last two cinnamon loveroots, into her bag. She stole my moves and my food! The nerve! Oh, I was mad! But, at the same time, I couldn’t help but admire her. She was smoother than I was, which is saying something.
“I decided to follow her. I was curious. Her clothes were all worn out and dirty. She looked strong, and yet tired and helpless at the same time.
“Turned out she was headed to The Universally Cosmic Circus of Amazing Wonder.”
You know, I could just tell her that we became lovers, but if I play my cards right and draw this out, maybe she’ll fall asleep before I get to that part.
Slowly, Phoenix attempted to do just that. He told (2)syl how Maia slipped through the crowd at the circus, pick-pocketing an entire street gang as she went. He told her how he threatened to tell their leader if she wouldn’t help him con a bunch of people out of their money at a T-stack game that evening. Then he told her how he threatened to blame it all on her if she didn’t stay with him. He told her how he continued to blackmail her into being his assistant, all the while teaching her the ways of his dishonest art.
“I knew that she wasn’t going to put up with me for much longer, but it was still a shock when it came.”
(2)syl had been silent for the last few minutes. Her breathing was slow and regular.
If she’s not asleep, she’s close.
He took a deep breath.
“Then, one day I found myself at the wrong end of my own pistols. She stole them from me, along with all my money. She was going to end it all right there. She was going to kill me. I couldn’t blame her, I guess, after all I did to her. Yeah, I thought my luck had finally run out. But the most amazing thing happened instead. She told me she loved me. I…I couldn’t believe it. And it was right then that I realized that I was in love with her too. And I couldn’t believe that, either.”
(2)syl snorted twice.
She’s asleep. She’ll be snoring soon.
But, he continued.
“You already know the rest of it. She ceased to be my apprentice and became my partner, my equal. And we were good together. In fact, we were great together. Great right up the day she betrayed me.”
He pictured her walking away from him in her old, dirty Get It Fast Jacket. It was his last memory of her.
The day before they captured me.
He thought about the number they imprinted on his flesh.
(2)syl was still holding his hand to her belly.
Glitch, I forgot all about that! She tricked me! She didn’t give me my hand back before she fell asleep, even though I kept my end of the bargain.
He was about to quickly and rudely draw his hand back but something inside wouldn’t let him.
Maybe I’ll wait until she’s sleeping deeper. That way, I won’t wake her.
And he did just that.
The Next Morning
Phoenix groggily awoke to the sound of soft singing.
What the glitch?
He forced his eyes open, ready for anything, almost. There was a great kink in his shoulder, due to the fact that his arm had been in an awkward position while he slept.
Ah glitch. I fell asleep and left it there the entire night. That's just great. He cringed as he realized his hand was still partway in her underwear. She's still holding on to it too, holding it down there. She said she was going to let me go if I told her a secret. Rule #1A. Never ever trust a woman.
The voice, a masculine voice continued to croon quietly, not too far away.
He's really bad. He shouldn't be singing at all, let alone this early in the morning.
Phoenix gently removed his captor's hands from his own. Quietly, he got out of his bedroll, taking care to not disturb her, fixing her covers as he got out. The chill of the morning air hit him. He shivered a little as he ran his fingers through his hair, trying to work off the ill effects that sleep always had on it.
Glitch, I wish I had a mirror.
He took a quick look around. The campsite consisted of the following: one dead tree, two backpacks leaning against said tree, two bedrolls lying next to each other, and one blue-haired girl fast asleep inside one of said bedrolls.
The previous day, they had set up their camp on the edge of a cliff overlooking a small town. It was the first sign of civilization that they had seen since they left the droid city. At this hour, there were no signs of life from the buildings far below, except for a lone guard that patrolled the edge of town.
Too early for anyone in their right mind to be awake.
The singing continued, a slow, lamenting tune.
It's too close to be coming from down there.
He glanced at (2)syl.
She'll be all right on her own for a few minutes. I gotta check this out.
Phoenix grabbed the AquaSucker from his pack and set off in the direction that the singing seemed to be coming from. The sun wasn't quite up yet, but it was already light enough for him to walk without tripping over the scrub brush that polka-dotted the landscape.
His throat was parched due to the arid night air. He took a quick sip from the AquaSucker, quietly marveling at how it could pull moisture from the air, despite how dry it felt. He let a few drops fall from the nozzle, and used them to wipe his eyes. He took another sip.
I can't believe we've lived off of just those stupid devices and food substitute for the last two weeks. His stomach growled, impatient for food. What I wouldn't do for a good meat-kabob platter and a glass of West Coast Wine.
A short distance away was a path that seemed to lead down to the base of the cliff and the sleeping city below. A large, fat cactus grew on one side of the path. The singing seemed to be coming from somewhere behind there. As he approached, he started to make out the lyrics.
"…AND the ranchers, AND the hunters, AND the ranchers, AND the…ranchers…"
There was a long pause.
"…and the RANCHERS will KILL THEM ALLLLL!!! AL--"
The singing ended abruptly in an episode of severe coughing. Phoenix could smell him before he could see him. The scent of whisky was thick. He rounded the cactus just in time to witness the half-hearted belch punctuating the end of his coughing spell.
The singer sat on the ground, his back propped up against the cactus, which, luckily, didn't seem to have any needles. A grease-stained blue headband hung and bobbed with his slightly balding head. He took a sip from the large brown bottle, the tip of it disappearing in his scraggly graying beard, some of the drink dripping out the bottom of it onto his tattered jacket and his baggy hole-ridden pants. Several other bottles of various colors, shapes and sizes lay scattered about.
The man flinched when he saw Phoenix.
"Woah! Ho! Wooooah there, mate! Ya shouldn't sneak up on a bloke like that!"
"Sorry," Phoenix said.
"You never know what a bloke's liable to do when you give 'em such a fright like that. Why, if I was in the fightin' mood, maybe I'd just whop ya sensless!"
"Oh wow! Well, then, I'll be more careful next time," Phoenix said, wondering what, exactly, it meant to get "whopped".
"That's right, mate, you'd better be careful…more careful the next time you…do the thing with the…" He gestured sloppily towards the back of the cactus. "…you know…that one from back behind there like you…with the…" He took another sip and nodded affirmatively to himself. "…careful."
"Yes, careful…speaking of which, what are you doing up here," Phoenix said, hoping that the whiskey would excuse the non-relationship of the topics.
"Aw, ya know,…drinkin'," he said, holding up the bottle.
"Ah, yes, I can see that. Isn't it a bit early…or late to be doing that?"
"Naw! The only time it's too late to drink is when you're dead," he said, bursting out in raucous laughter, immediately followed by another coughing spell. "I just got off work," he said, after another sip.
"Aw, ya know…the Eiech one. Stay up all night. Allll niiiiight looong," he sang out, "Fixin' up the droidies all niiiight."
"Droidies? You're a droid mechanic?"
"Yeah. I'm one of them techies. Nothing like tearing up the techtrash and making new techtrash out of the old techtrash. That's what I do every night. Alll niiiight loo--"
Phoenix gestured to the town below, "So, then, you work in that town down there, right?"
"Yeah, that's right."
"Well, it looks like a nice enough place. I think I'll pay it a visit today."
"Oh…oh, naw…no, that's…that place is no good for visitin', mate."
"Why not? It looks like a perfectly quaint little--"
"No, no, no…no…no. Things are getting pretty bad there. It's not like it used to be…back in the old days…"
Phoenix gave him a quizzical look.
"…yeah, back in the old days…before things started goin' bad.."
"Well, here's how it works, see…if you're livin' down there, you're one of three kinds of people. You're either a Hunter, a Techie, or a Rancher. The Hunters--they're the ones that get those nasty droids in the first place. They say there's a city not too far from here (maybe a day or two by Steed, that is)."
A day or two! How do I get my hands on one--er, make that two of them?
"I've never been there, but they say the place is crawlin' with 'em. A whole city with no people--just droids--mean, nasty droids that aren't right in the head at all."
I've been there. It's true.
"So, yeah, the Hunters, they catch 'em, kill 'em and bring 'em back here."
He took another swallow of whiskey. Phoenix eyed the bottle. It's been a long time since I've had a good drink.
"That's where us Techies come in. We take all the scrapped up droids and turn 'em into Steeds. Each one is unique--a work of art. That's right! Yours, truly is an arrrrteeest!"
At that, the drunken man busted out laughing--seemingly at some private joke. He laughed long and loud until coughing took over.
"Well, what about the Ranchers?" Phoenix finally asked after the man calmed his cough with another swig. The man frowned. He paused and took another long gulp before continuing.
"The Ranchers," he continued solemnly. "The ranchers are the ones that take care of the Steeds once we're done with 'em. They keep 'em penned up in a big corral, and then, once in a while, when the corral is getting full, they drive 'em off to Black City East or some glitched place and sell 'em off."
"Sounds like a nice little operation you folks got going on there."
"Yeah. Well, it was…it was. But eventually…you know how it goes…it was great for a while, but then business just started dropping off. People started gettin' real upset with each other. Then, cyberspace died. We got no more customers after that. The Hunters, they keep bringin' 'em in, the Techies, they fix 'em up, but the Ranchers, they don't sell no Steeds."
"That's right. Everybody's always hated everybody in that town, but now it's about to e'splode."
"Well, maybe I'll just steer clear, then."
"Good man. Good man--especially tonight."
"Well, I figure it just might have a good chance of it all blowing up tonight at their weekly T-stack game--just like how they say that island did."
Phoenix raised an eyebrow. "Did you just say 'T-stack'?"
"Yup. Every week it just gets rougher and rougher. One of these days…BOOM!!!"
"Weekly T-stack, huh? Well, maybe I will go down there after all. But I'll be sure to be careful."
The Next Morning [s091]
Phoenix took a sip from a large brown bottle, as he and (2)syl negotiated the narrow trail down the cliff.
"A con goes a little smoother when there's a little alcohol in you," he explained, wiping his mouth.
"And it goes a lot smoother when there's a lot of alcohol in them, I suppose," (2)syl said.
"Heeeeey. You catch on fast, kiddo."
(2)syl scowled at that. "Is that why you stole that bottle? So you could use it to get everyone in that town drunk?"
"Stole? You make it sound so…unethical. I was simply relieving him of excess clutter in his life. He had a couple of bottles, so he's not going to miss one. He didn't even say anything when I took it. Don't you remember? I even asked."
"He was passed out!"
"Which is why I took it. He'd already had too much." He took another gulp, the liquid searing his throat. "This stuff's dangerous. It'll kill you if you're not careful. We probably saved his life."
"We!!??" (2)syl exclaimed. "I don't remember us being partners."
"Yeah, but then again you can't remember anything," he retorted, mildly. "Regardless, we're partners-in-crime, at least for today."
"Whatever. Just don't call me kiddo," (2)syl snapped.
* * *
They were almost at the bottom of the cliff.
"Okay, remember the plan, now," Phoenix said.
"Yeah, yeah, I got it. I just pretend like we're a totally clueless couple from out of town. We are from out of town and are partially clueless, so it really isn't that big of a lie."
"Beyond that, just follow your lead, and let you worry about everything else."
"Good. You got it." Or at least the part of it that I'm going to let you in on.
* * *
It's just like Sahris's handiwork--if Sahris killed droids instead of people.
Phoenix stared at the sign. It was held by the mouth of a dead droid. The words were written in what appeared to be grease or some other mechanical fluid.
"Great," he said, "Hopefully they're friendly to humans."
"Yeah, let's hope so," (2)syl responded.
He smiled a bit. "Oh, so you're talking now. That's great too. I--"
He glanced away. "I was afraid you were mad at me."
"Maybe I am…" she said, slyly, with a tilt of her head and a sidelong glance, a smirk crossing her face.
Black skinsuit tonight, glitch it.
"…but don't let that bother you too much. Right now at least."
I doubt she's mad. I wonder what color it would be right now.
Other than some brief discussion about their plan, this was the first bit of conversation that they had all day. What few words that were spoken were fairly quick, cutting even, and Phoenix wasn't sure what to think of it.
Somehow, things seem different since last night. I don't think sharing secrets was really the best thing to do. Let's not plan on doing that again.
(2)syl slipped one hand up on his shoulder momentarily, then grasped his hand.
Is that part of the act?
* * *
Phoenix scanned the dark, smoky bar. A glowing sign above the bartender bore the name of the establishment:
There…at the center table. It's just like that old drunk said. The rancher, hunter, and techie chiefs all together in one big powwow.
He started to make his way towards the table.
* * *
"T-stack, right. Can I play?"
Every head in the room turned at that--the weapon-wielding players at the table in front of him, the patrons at the other tables, the bartender in the back. Even the musician, jacked into his polymatrix synth stopped playing. An eerie hush settled over the room. Somewhere off to the side, one of the wooden chairs creaked.
"Private game," barked one of the men at the table, giving Phoenix a rather harsh look. The man was very large and muscular, and yet somehow had a shallow face. His attire was that of someone who worked outdoors a great deal--boots, thic-fab pants, dirt-stained chaps, thic-fab shirt with vest over top, and a large, black hat to top it all off. It looked as if he hadn't shaved in several days. His large mustache twitched just a bit.
"What you got?” asked a tough-looking woman wearing a trench coat. “Credit not worth j'aa around here." She sat directly across from the black hat who redirected the angry glance toward her. The color of her tussled blonde hair contrasted sharply with that of her darkened skin.
Phoenix smiled and snapped his fingers, his eyes scanning the players. (2)syl, who was standing behind and beside, handed him a backpack.
"I have enough," he said, glancing back at the woman. "Stuff that's difficult to get around here I suspect, especially with cyberspace flatlined."
"Like what?" the woman asked.
"AquaSuckers," he said enticingly, with a grin.
"Multiples?" asked a balding man in an astonished electronic-laden voice. The pale, skinny man was the third player. He was dressed in a grease-stained gray smock. He sported a metal box attached to his throat and wore goggles that were apparently permanently attached to his face.
"Let's see them," said the black hat. "Then we'll consider letting you lose them to us."
"Not the AquaSuckers, love," said (2)syl, clawing into Phoenix's shoulder. "We need those."
"I know what I'm doing, angel," he said, pulling out the AquaSuckers out of the backpack and setting them on the table. "We talked about this before. Trust me."
Several of the players at the table grabbed at the AquaSuckers, inspecting them with greed.
"So, I'm in?"
* * *
"How could I lose again!?" Phoenix said, in disbelief.
"It's a good thing your little woman decided to go in back. She'd have your head by now," said Dongar.
"Glitch Dongar!" said the blonde woman. "He always win. Glitched rancher."
"Hey, if you can't handle it, you shouldn't play," said Dongar, adjusting his black hat before reaching for both of Phoenix's sais, a large knife, and a mess of food substitute packets on the table. "Maybe I should ban you hunters from the table, if you can't handle losing."
"I agree with SysShot," said the balding man. "Ever since you remodeled this place, you can't seem to lose. Statistically, it's very unlikely."
"Good thing my luck is better than Gizzy's statistics. This proves it." Dongar pointed to his pile of winnings. "Ready to lose more, everyone?" Dongar slammed his bet down on the table--an AquaSucker and a flashlight.
"The statistics say that it is time to cut my losses," Gizzy's electronic voice said.
"Aww glitch. Already? What about you, SysShot?"
"Done," she said. "You too lucky tonight".
"Yeah, it figures that you'd give up so soon,"
SysShot responded with a snarl.
He turned to Phoenix. "What about you, stranger? Let's see…I've got your food, your AquaSuckers, your extra clothes, your backpacks, your woman's extra skinsuits--not that I can use 'em--and now both of your pointy things. Got anything else you'd like to give me?"
Phoenix sighed. "Well, it's against my better judgment but…why the glitch not." He placed both of his pistols on the table. "I think my luck's about to change."
"All right. That's the kind of bet I like to see!" Dongar said, grinning at the pistols. "Let's deal."
The two men each drew three tiles face down from a black bag in the middle of the table and examined them intently without showing them to the others. Dongar grinned after seeing his hand. "Let's make things interesting," he said. He laid one of his tiles on the table. "> 2x" was printed on its face.
"Does that mean that we have to double the bet?" Phoenix asked.
"At least double. Clouds' the limit," Dongar clarified.
"But I don't have anything else. I guess I'll just cancel, then" Phoenix said, and reached for his pistols.
Dongar grabbed his hand. "Too late for that."
"That's the rules, boy. Call cancel if you want, but anything already on the table goes to the winner. Table rules," said Dongar, "and I own the table--and this whole building."
"So, are you in or out?"
"Well, since you put it that way…let me see." Phoenix quickly checked each of the pockets of his jumpsuit--six in all. Finally, in the sixth one, he found something. "Aha," he said, pulling out a colorful cube-shaped object and placing it on the table. "There we go."
"What the glitch is that?"
"It's a…ah…a one-of-a-kind piece. It's…Emperor Schultheiss III's personal…" Phoenix leaned over and whispered something in Dongar's ear.
"You're full of j'aa! The man's dead. How do you activate it?"
"Don't know. You wanna play or not?"
"You're talkin' pretty tough for a guy who's losing."
"Like I said, I think my luck is about to change. Now, what are you going to bet?"
"Oh let's see…how about…this." Dongar pulled a pair of small red discs out of his pocket and set them on the table.
"What the glitch are those?" Phoenix asked.
"Oh. What do they do?"
"They come in pairs like this--a transmitter and a receiver." He pushed the Skreamers across the table. Phoenix picked them up. The devices were perfectly circular. They were flat on one side and had a round raised portion on the other.
"What you do is press the top of this one, here," Dongar continued, pointing to one of them, "then it'll light up and you can talk into it. After five seconds are up, whatever you say is transmitted to this one." Dongar pointed to the other one. "It also sends its coordinates."
"Interesting. Let's give it a try," Phoenix said, his thumb over the transmitter.
"No! You can't do that! It only works once," Dongar said
"What!? What good is that?"
"The two can be separated by any distance and still work," Gizzy explained. "It could be rather useful with all matrix comms down."
"Whatever. I'm sure I can find something to do with 'em. Let's play." Phoenix prepared to lay down a tile.
"Not so fast."
"What now?" Phoenix asked, rolling his eyes.
Dongar chuckled. "Well, the way I see it, the bet is a little uneven here. Plus, that cube j'aa hardly qualifies as doubling your bet. You need to put something else on the table."
"Come on Dongar. You give him break," said SysShot. "It not like you need win more."
"Shut up, hunter!" Dongar snapped. "This is my bar, my table, and my game." He paused and eyed everyone at the table before slowly continuing. "So we're gonna play my way."
"But I don't have anything else to wager," Phoenix said.
"What about…her," Dongar said softly, glancing toward the back of the room with a grin.
"Don't play that game with me. You know exactly who I'm talking about. That blue-haired eyebuzz you walked in with."
"Yeah, eyebuzz," SysShot said.
"Ohhhh. Her. I said she wasn't on the table."
"You said yet."
"Oh…well…I was just joking…ha ha."
"Well, I'm not. I'll tell you what. Thirty minutes of uninterrupted time with her would about even out the bet, I think."
"She's not on the table. Besides, a fair bet would be five minutes."
"What!? That's outrageous!"
"That would be plenty of time for you to…do your thing…hypothetically."
"I need at least twenty. It takes time to do things right."
A couple of men standing behind Dongar chuckled.
"Twenty!? Ten--absolute max. That's about all you'll be able to handle anyway. Besides, ten's all you need. She's good...real good."
"You drive a pretty hard bargain, for being so stupid. I guess I could probably do with fifteen."
Phoenix scratched his head. He glanced down at his tiles, then back at Dongar, then Dongar's pile of winnings.
"Let's make things more…interesting," Phoenix said with a smile. "You wager everything you've won tonight, and I'll let you have her from now until the sun comes up--if you win, that is."
Shouts and hollers erupted from around the room. More and more people were now taking interest in the showdown at the center table.
"Did you talk this over with her?" Dongar asked. "Seems to me that she's a feisty one. What if she doesn't feel like cooperating?"
Phoenix gave Dongar a sly look. "Is that a problem?"
Dongar grinned "Well…heh…since you…uh…put it that way…heh heh…I guess not." He glanced at his tiles, then at his winnings. He tapped his fingers on the table several times. "She as good as you say she is?"
Phoenix smiled. "There's only one way to find out."
Dongar tapped his fingers on the table again, checked his tiles once more. He chuckled, then pushed the entire collection of items out to the middle of the table, to the cheers of onlookers. "This'll be great. I'm sure the boys will want to all get in on the action. Gizzy, you in? We'll take her back to see NiZo. Maybe try out that cube on her--see if it's really what this vootch say it is. Glitch, I'll even let SysShot take her for a spin--for the right price--maybe a couple of Steeds."
"But you have to win first," Phoenix said.
"I don't think that's gonna be a problem. Watch and learn, vootch." In one swift move, he flipped over his remaining two tiles--each bearing a number nine written in green--and placed them in a T-shape. "Ninety-nine!" he shouted, to the delight of many. "Now hurry up and flip 'em so I can get started with Blue Keetcha."
Phoenix glanced around the room and then locked eyes with Dongar. Without saying a word, he flipped over the first tile. It was a blue three. He flipped over the next tile, eyes still on Dongar. A red two. He placed it next to the three. He paused for a moment. He glanced around the room, which was now quiet, all eyes waiting for the revelation of the last tile. He flipped over the final tile. It bore the number one in chrome. He slowly placed it next to the other two tiles, forming the 'T'.
"And there you have it," Phoenix said. “A High Roller." He smiled wide. "See, I told you my luck was gonna change."
The room sat in stunned silence.
"Sorry, Dongar," Phoenix said, reaching for the pile, "but I'll be sure to let her know you care."
Dongar started chuckling--first softly, then gradually louder. He grabbed Phoenix's arm, stopping him from taking the pot.
"You're even dumber than I thought, stranger."
"You shouldn't be playin' this game," said SysShot.
"If you don't know the T's, even statistics can't help you," said Gizzy.
"But I could have sworn that a High Roller's the highest T in the game!"
"It is," said Dongar, "but that's not a High Roller."
"Your tiles all need to be the same color," said SysShot.
Phoenix stared at his T, then back at SysShot. "You--you're saying that the colors mean things?"
The entire room burst out in laughter.
"But…but I thought they were just there for decoration."
"So…I lost, then?"
"Yep. You lost, all right. Don't worry, though, I'll let her know you care--all night long."
Raucous laughter and cheering broke out from around the room.
Dongar stood up. "Well, it's high time to claim my prize. Let's go get her." He took a few steps towards the back of the room.
Phoenix stood up. "Alright. Let's go." He took a step but then stopped. "Listen, I didn't want to admit it earlier, but, since it's obvious now… This was my first time playing."
SysShot shook her head. "Stupid vootch."
Dongar laughed. "Well, I'll give you a lesson anytime you want, stranger."
"Great! What about now?"
Dongar chuckled and pointed toward the back. "Well, maybe after--"
"Oh, right, right…of course. Well, how about just a question, then? I'll make it quick so you can…ah…get down to business."
"Well, I don't….aw, shoot, why not? After how generous you were, it's only fair for an expert like me to answer a simple question."
"Okay. Great." Phoenix turned back towards the table. "Well, here's the question. How do you do that one hot move of yours?"
"I…I don't follow," Dongar said, looking confused.
Phoenix waved his hand. "Oh don't be shy. I know I'm in the presence of greatness when I see something like that."
"Well, I am great, but I'm still not sure--,"
"You know, where you used the…bottom...pool." Phoenix looked at Gizzy. "Is that what it's called? Bottom pool? I mean, I just sort of made that term up, because I used to watch the live-broadcast T-stack championships, and they never had anything like that."
"You've had too much to drink, stranger. You're not making any sense."
Phoenix smiled, and looked around the room. "He's keeping it a secret. He doesn't want anyone to steal his special move I guess." He looked at the table. "Well, maybe I can figure it out on my own," he said, sitting down at the table.
"Hey, that's my chair," said Dongar.
"And a nice one too," said Phoenix, studying the table.
"Let's see, so when the right time comes, you just tap right about…here." With his finger, Phoenix taped several times on the table. "And then…"
A tile suddenly appeared in Phoenix's other hand, which was just under the edge of the table. He held it up for everyone to see. "A double wild. That would have been handy." He stared straight at Dongar. "So, when is it all right to do a bottom pool draw?"
In an instant, Dongar's pistol was in Phoenix's face.
"Are you trying to imply something, keetcha?"
"I'm just trying to learn how to improve my ga--,"
"You know, I'm gonna have a lot of fun with your girl--every night--after you're dead."
"Hold right there, Dongar."
In instant, SysShot had pulled out her rather large rifle and aimed at Dongar. As if on queue, everyone in the room drew their weapons. Some aimed at SysShot, some aimed at Dongar, and the rest aimed at each other.
"There no such thing as bottom pool draw."
"Glitch it, SysShot! Can't you see what he's trying to pull with a little sleight of hand?"
"He too stupid for that. We check and make sure."
SysShot gestured to two rifle-wielding muscular men behind her. They approached the table. "Clear it first."
One man quickly started collecting the glasses that were on the table. The other gathered the tiles and put them back into the black bag. Phoenix reached for the pile of Dongar's winnings.
"I'll…ah…I'll just shove all this stuff into these two backpacks here."
"Like Eiech you will," Dongar said, gripping his pistol.
"Don't worry 'bout him, stranger. You pack up all your j'aa, all Dongar's j'aa--even mine and Gizzy's. If this is as I think, then you earn all."
The table was now clear. The two men unceremoniously flipped it over. It struck with a loud clang, vibrating the floor.
"See. Nothing to look at," said Dongar.
"Wait," said SysShot. She gestured to one of the men. "Open it up--like droid."
The man raised his rifle and sent a couple of pulses of energy into the table. It burst apart, splintering into three large chunks and myriad of smaller pieces. In the midst of it all, black T-stack tiles covered the floor.
SysShot glared at Dongar.
Dongar had a look of horror on his face. He pointed a finger at Phoenix. "It was him! He set this up somehow."
"It's highly unlikely that he could have done it without us knowing it," said Gizzy.
"Yeah. Besides, you said yourself--it's your table," SysShot said.
"We made deals on the price of the Steeds over T-stack games at this table," Gizzy said, looking highly annoyed.
"Take those bags and leave, stranger," SysShot said, eyeing the rest of the room. "It gonna get real nasty in here."
* * *
As soon as Phoenix stepped out of the door, the gunfire began. A number of people who had just been milling about in the street suddenly stopped and stared at Droidsbane, trying to ascertain the meaning of the situation.
"Dongar and SysShot are going at it!" Phoenix shouted, gesturing behind him. "Better get in there!"
Instantly, the situation in the street degenerated into chaos. Some ran towards the bar. Others started fighting with each other.
Phoenix started running towards the back of the building, awkwardly trying to manage two backpacks that were filled to capacity.
That went well. I was just going to win, and then get a bar fight going, but the fact that Dongar was cheating made things a whole lot easier, not to mention more fun.
Now for the real con. Gotta find syl first.
He rounded the backside of the building, nearly knocking (2)syl down. "Follow me," he said quickly, tossing her one of the backpacks. She caught it, running after him.
He glanced back at her. Her black skinsuit was covered with red.
"Hey, is that blood? What happened?"
I shouldn't have left her alone. She seems to be all right, though.
"What did you do?" he asked.
"Phoenix, don't ask me that again. Please. Just...don't ask." She was shaking.
"Never ask me."
* * *
Phoenix and (2)syl approached the large fence. Beyond the fence, he could see a number of Steeds--some stationary, some slowly walking around. Five men were perched easily on top of the fence at strategic locations, rifles cradled in their arms. Phoenix ran up to one of them, breathless.
"Woah there, stranger! Tell me, what's that all that commotion going on in the middle of town."
"SysShot's tearing 'em up back at Droidsbane. She said something about Dongar being a cheating keetchin and then said, 'Death to all the rancher g'ekks!' "
In an instant, all five of the men were on Steeds. One of them opened the fence gate, and they galloped off towards Droidsbane, not even bothering to close the gate.
After the five were out of hearing range, he turned to (2)syl. He shook his head. "Glitch, I'm good."
Thought Review (i)
"Phoenix, can we please stop now? I'm about to fall asleep."
"Me too, but we can't let 'em catch us."
Keep running. Never stop running.
"If they catch us sleeping, it's not like it matters if we're on the ground or on our Steeds. Besides, these things really move. We've put plenty of kilometers between us and Die Droid Die."
Phoenix brought his Steed to a halt. "I guess you're right."
The two dismounted and powered down their Steeds, which stood shiny and motionless under the moonlight.
They set their backpacks on the ground. Phoenix rummaged through one of them and pulled out a flashlight. He switched it on and handed it to (2)syl, then went back to rummaging.
"Someone wagered a survival tent at one point in the game."
"I need to change," (2)syl said. "I'm not sleeping in this blood-stained suit--even if there's not enough light to see it."
What happened, I wonder? Probably wasn't pretty. Physically she seems all right. I'm sure she's a pro with that sever-whip. She told me to never ask, but will she ever just tell me?
"Here," he said, handing her the moodsuit.
(2)syl turned around and set the flashlight on the ground in front of her. She started to undo her top. "Don't stare," she said without looking back.
Phoenix, who hadn't realized that he was staring, turned away and set a cylinder-shaped object on the ground. He pressed a button on the small cylinder. In a matter of moments, the small tent structure unfolded itself.
As the tent unfolded, he took a moment to glance back at (2)syl--just in time to witness her slip the skinsuit down her legs. Her silhouette stepped out of the black skinsuit, wearing only undergarments. She picked up the moodsuit. She shivered for a moment. The night air was cold.
Phoenix suddenly was aware that the tent had finished deploying and was now silent. For the sake of noise, he grabbed one of the backpacks and resumed rummaging through it--this time for nothing in particular.
(2)syl bent over, carefully reaching down to place her feet into the suit. She slipped the suit up her legs, and over her hips. One arm struggled for a few seconds trying to find its way into a sleeve. Finally it found its mark. The other was quicker, taking only a moment to slip into its sheath. Her entire back--where, Phoenix knew her strange tattoo was--was now covered. The sound of ziptabs zipping let him know that she was almost done. He looked back into the backpack, trying to discern the contents in the dark. He could hear (2)syl's footsteps closing in behind him.
"You were looking, weren't you?"
"Yup," he said, pulling something out of the backpack, all in one motion, "for this."
(2)syl shined the flashlight on the object--a small shiny packet.
"I thought you said you'd never eat food substitute ever again."
(2)syl stepped close.
"Are you gonna slap me?" he asked, cautiously.
Before he could react, (2)syl slipped her arms around his waist, pulling herself close, pressing her head against his chest. Phoenix slipped an arm around her, instinctively.
"Maybe later," she said before releasing him.
* * *
Phoenix lay next to (2)syl in the rather cramped tent. Sleep was fighting him, but all he could think of was how she had hugged him, and how he wanted her to do it again--how he wanted her to wake up, roll over and--
Why the glitch am I thinking like this? I thought I was done with women. Really, I never should have started in the first place. That would have solved a lot of problems.
Why is it that syl bothers me like this? Why am I still letting her be around me? I should have ditched her somewhere along the line. I could have just not exposed Dongar's cheating ways. But, there's no way I would have let that happen to her. Why? Just because she's an eyebuzz? Just because she's seems so…vulnerable?
Phoenix remembered (2)syl's skinsuit slipping off. Then, suddenly, she was naked, rivers of water snaking down her body. "The greatest sensation of any lifetime." I'd love to try out the FUN-Damentals with her.
Good glitch! Where did that come from? That was one of the most horrifying experiences of my life! I can't believe I actually bought that book. I bought it. I should have at least lifted it, for the amount of good it did me. I was such a fool. Maia. I was a complete fool for her. I'm not gonna let syl make a fool out of me.
* * *
(2)syl was on her hands and knees as Phoenix hovered over her. He carefully held back her blue locks as she heaved one final time. This time, it was mostly just saliva.
After a few moments of panting, she sat back. Phoenix handed her a cloth. She took it with trembling hands and put it to her mouth. He handed her an AquaSucker--the next step in the routine. She sipped, then spat, then sipped some more. "Thanks," she whispered finally, skinsuit ribbing going blue.
"Sure," he said softly. She made motions to get herself up. He let his hand slip off her shoulder, trying to remember how it got there in the first place.
Everyday the same thing. Why am I even helping her like this? It slows us down, having to stop and go through this all the time.
Also, I thought blue meant fear. I don't think she's afraid, so why did the suit go blue just now?
Phoenix started folding the emergency blankets. Dirt and dust tarnished its silvery shine, and its edges were starting to look worn. Even now, the chill in the air was being broken by the sun's rays, which were slowly thawing out the air.
(2)syl was slightly hunched over, rubbing her stomach. A tear slid down her cheek.
"All this j'aa, and I can't even remember who's responsible."
"I am," Phoenix said.
"I should have never allowed you to eat that food substitute this morning."
(2)syl scowled at Phoenix, but, after a moment, smiled just a bit.
Phoenix smiled, then hung his head.
"Sorry," he said.
* * *
Phoenix caught himself staring at (2)syl's hips, which were riding up and down in a slow rhythm. (2)syl sighed, wiping sweat off of her brow with a flick of her wrist. Phoenix touched his forehead. It was drenched as well.
The midday sun beat down on the both of them. He squinted. Bright glare bounced off of (2)syl's chrome Steed in front of him.
The steep hillside they were negotiating dictated single file, and for some reason (2)syl had insisted on taking the lead. Phoenix was too tired to argue.
Twenty minutes ago, he had managed to down another packet of food substitute and was now feeling a bit drowsy for it. The heat of the sun intensified this.
He found himself trying to keep his eyes open. Currently his Steed was in follow mode. Technically, he could take a nap without having to worry about steering. All the same, he tried to keep his eyes open, but for some reason when he did, they wouldn't stop surveying (2)syl's backside. Her skinsuit's black ribbing and zip tab seams were all too willing to direct his eyes to points of interest.
"It's incredibly hot in this thing," she said, in a low, breathy voice.
Then, without warning, she unzipped the top portion of her suit and peeled it off. Her complex black marking was now available for Phoenix's viewing.
"Much better," she said, "except…"
Phoenix barely managed to catch her upper undergarment as she tossed it behind her.
"Much, much better," she said, relief in her voice.
Finally, she looked back over her shoulder, directly at Phoenix, and mouthed the words: I want you.
"I want you too," he said out loud.
"What the glitch are you talking about?"
Phoenix's eyes flew open, his head jerking back.
There was (2)syl, fully clothed on the Steed in front of him.
"I…I think I was dreaming," he said, wiping some moisture (either sweat or saliva) from the corner of his mouth.
"Was it a good dream?" she asked.
He looked away and sighed. "I don't know."
* * *
"Can we stop and rest for a minute?" (2)syl asked, panting.
"Okay," Phoenix replied, unzipping his jumpsuit the rest of the way, pushing the top down. The two stood under the meager shade provided by the large, scraggly tree--the only one to be seen. Walking instead of riding, now that their Steeds were gone, made things seem a lot hotter.
"That's the best idea I've heard all day, actually. It's getting really glitching hot," he said, wiping the sweat from of his stubble-filled chin. He removed his arms from his sleeves. The top of his jumpsuit fell away, leaving him naked from the waist up. A small line of his undergarment was showing, but it was so hot that he didn't care. The breeze, which had burned all day now seemed much cooler against his bare skin, in the shade.
(2)syl was leaning with her back against the tree trunk. He glanced over at her. She looked quickly away.
Was she staring at me?
He noticed that her skinsuit ribbing, which had been black most of the day, was now red. His mind jumped back to when she insisted on checking his stomach wound every day. Each time, her suit would do the same thing. Then, it hit him.
Red means lust! She's checking me out! No wonder she keeps trying to get my shirt off. She thinks I'm hot. I can't blame her. But wait a minute, here. I thought red meant anger. That thing must have been designed by a woman just to throw men off. Glitch all women everywhere!
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