I

Gretta

    Her eyes closed, sleep took her, and then the portal was before her. It wasn’t exactly a doorway, although it was a door. The edges were wrong, fuzzy and airy like it lacked the solidity of something physical. The scene through it was clear enough, it was the marketplace. Around her there was only darkness. It suggested there was only one option, forward. The darkness seemed to goad her, feeling more restrictive with each passing moment, enclosing around her until the choice of stepping through the door was no choice at all. Her heart pounded as the world around her shrank. It felt like a thousand hands pushing her towards the door. Finally she moved in the only direction possible, across the threshold, into the light of the busy scene beyond.

    Once she stepped into the new world, the claustrophobic feeling vanished. It was replaced by the feeling of the familiar, like returning home after years away. Everything seemed just as she remembered it, but different. The colors of the signs seemed a little duller, the people just a little older, the store fronts and sales booths just a little more worn.  

    She was the same, she knew. Still wearing the same cristaline armor that her memory insisted she just put on that morning. It was a black material, ethereal in a way. It could be hard or fluid, depending on what challenged it. On the breastplate there gleamed the red crest of the Forgotten Ones and on her waist, her sidearm.

She took in the scene for a moment, just staring, wondering how long it had been this time, then she heard the voice call her name from behind her.

    “Gretta?” The voice asked, with a disbelieving tone of someone expecting a stranger to turn around.

    Gretta had not been her name in the other world, in the human world, in the darkness. There she  was Errica. For a moment she couldn’t remember how she had come by the name Gretta, only that it felt as natural as Errica did in the waking hours. Here it simply was her name, as if it had always been, and it had always been. Even now, Errica, who she had been in the darkness before the door, was fading the way a dream evaporates from the mind when exposed to the wilting reality of consciousness. This was consciousness, in the same way the other was. It was a trading of lives, of worlds. Worlds that would never meet, nor know of the other in any real, substantive sense. Each to each was a dream, as fleeting and imaginary as a dream could be.

    She felt the smile form on her face before she even turned around. The voice was familiar, so familiar, and so very desired. It was the voice of a long lost best friend and lover. The sound was honey for her ears. She spun around to see Cassy’s look of uncertain hope and watched it blossom into pure joy. She saw the smile spread across her dark face and her golden eyes seem to squint as they yielded to its force. Cassy hadn’t changed at all, except maybe the clothes she was wearing. Her ghost white hair still hung straight to her shoulders. Her ears poking through it, just barely.

Cassy, who had been standing a good thirty feet away, burst into a run, as did Gretta. They slowed just enough to catch each other. Cassy’s legs left the ground and wrapped around Gretta’s waist as they spun and kissed and hugged. Neither really knew what to say to the other, their emotions were  so intense that no words would serve. They just embraced and laughed and cried in the middle of the marketplace. A few people took notice and a few smiled at the scene, but mostly, life moved on around them.

    When they finally separated and wiped the tears from their eyes, Cassy spoke first.

    “I knew you’d come back, I just knew it,” she said. There was a mix of relief and defiance in her voice.

    “Who said I wouldn’t?” Gretta asked, although she thought she knew.

    “That asshole Jake and Zachery. They’ve been hounding me ne’ry everyday since you went away last time?” Cassy said. “Most days I didn’t pay them no mind, just did my thing, but there were nights I was fearin.”

    “How long has it been?” Gretta asked, afraid to know.

    “Three years, two months, sixteen days, and a few hours.” Cassy said. “I’ve been countin’ the hours since the last you were taken.”

    Taken was the right word, as Gretta knew. Nothing could compel her to leave this world willingly. Nothing could drag her away from Cassy, if there was anyway to resist. She knew enough of the thing to know that it didn’t work the same way on the other side. Here time continued to pass, but there it didn’t. The cruelty of this Gretta thought unspeakable, not for her, but Cassy, who must go on alone, waiting and never knowing for how long.

    “I’m sorry Cassy,” Gretta said and tears welled up in her eyes again.

    Cassy saw the tears and wiped them away.

    “No, no, don’t cry. Don’t cry. It’s alright. You’re back now and they’ll be none of that.” She kissed her again and held her head against hers. There they stood, eyes closed, heads together, noses touching, quietly sobbing, but smiling.

    After what seemed like hours they sniffed up their remaining sobs and looked at each other. Cassy took Gretta’s hand and they walked into the heart of the marketplace. Hundreds of vendors surrounded them. Brightly colored signs of wood, cloth, and even a few hologram, seemed to blanket the square. Upon them shop names and crude images representing their wears shown proud. The air was rich with smells of spice and fruit and meat. Fish vendors and pastry chefs called out their products. Grills sizzled and the aroma of a hundred frying foods blended together into one mouth watering scent.

Beside them all the Tech dealers, circuit shops and gutter rat AI hacks pitched their goods to whoever would listen. There were more than Gretta remembered, but it wasn’t surprising. The black market tech sectors were just starting to boom the last she was here, now it was everywhere.

    All the sounds and smells brought an endless stream of memories to the front of Gretta’s mind. The world before was gone, the dream, and on this side of the door it was a dream, had left her completely. For a moment she realized the same fate awaited all of this when she awoke in the morning. The thought filled her with dread and she pushed it away, choosing instead to indulge the memories of this life and world, as the smells and sounds brought them so vividly to the fore.

    The spell was broken by another voice bellowing from the crowd, this one less pleasant, but no less familiar.

    “Gretta? Is that you?” A man’s voice called out.

    Gretta’s eyes scanned through the faces of the crowd until they fell upon one that was familiar. It was Jake. His looked not dissimilar from what she remembered, yet radically different from the memories that, to her, should only be a day old. His broad forehead had gotten larger as his hair receded these past three years. His nose looks like it had been broken twice more since the time she’d broken it. But it was his large protruding ears and his bulging eyes that gave him away. That he stood a full head above most everyone else in the crowd also helped.

    Cassy stopped in her tracks at the sound of his voice, holding Gretta back as well. Gretta looked at her for a moment and saw the look of concern on her face.

    “It’s okay,” Gretta said, masking the nerves in her voice by whispering.

    Jake was heading towards them now, moving deftly through the crowd the way a large man wielding a little authority does.

    Cassy tugged on Gretta’s hand like a child might tug on a parents arm when they are desperate.

    “Please can we just go?” Cassy begged, but Gretta knew it was too late.

    Jake was almost on top of them now, the last of the crowd parting. The people had gone oddly silent as they waited with anticipation for what was about to happen. Hundreds of eyes were focused on them, and Gretta knew they would all be useless should this turn bad.

    “Three years its been,” Jake said as he reached them and took up a position uncomfortably close. He stood a full foot and a half taller than Gretta and bent down, his face only inches from hers as he spoke. “Some of us thought you were ne’er comin’ back. Some of us were none too happy about that,” he continued, his breath ripe with the smell of old fish and garlic.

    “And?” Gretta asked, her eyes, now cold and calculating, never leaving his.

    For a moment Jake only looked at her, anger burning in his eyes, his breath huffing from mouth and nostrils so hard Gretta’s black bangs moved with each gale. Then, he let out a grunt that might have been a chuckle. He clapped her on her armored shoulder and stood up straight. Cassy winced, her concern fading a little. Jake laughed harder still, and Gretta yielded a smile. Around them the crowds of people began to return to their business, realizing nothing of interest was going to happen.

    “My gods woman I’s missed you,” he said as he regained his composure. “Zachery is going to be bullshit he lost the bet.”

    “Bet?” Gretta inquired.

    “Yeah, you were gone so long that bugger swore you weren’t ever coming back. Now me, I’s know that ‘weren’t ever’ is never and never’s a long time.” Jake said with an arrogant confidence only a man of his size might be able to pull off.

    “Where is Zachery now?” Gretta asked, her tone flat and tinged with disdain.

    “Oh, he’s were he’s always at, the pub, gettin’ pretty shitfaced by now I’d hazard,” Jake said.

    “Good, don’t tell him I’m back yet,” Gretta said.

    “But, I mean, he’s goin’ be even more bullshit when he’s wasted, comon, it’s gonna be fun.” Jake said, almost pleading, the earlier confidence in his voice giving away to the almost whinny sound of a child begging his mother to let his friends come over to play.

    “No, Jake, swear to me you’ll do me this kindness. I’ve only just got back and have a lot to catch up on. I don’t need Zachery humping my leg from the jump.” Gretta said firmly.

    “Oh, alright, I won’t say nothin,” Jake droned.

    “Swear it!” Cassy spoke up now, her own confidence on the ascent.

    “Okay, Okay. He won’t hear nothin from me, I swear. But y’all got to know that this ain’t going to stay quiet long, Y’all just prancing through the marketplace and all, The eyes ‘roud here are just as sharp as ‘ver you know, some things don’t get rusty with age,” Jake said.

    “Indeed, and duly noted. I don’t need long, but I do need peace while I figure things,” Gretta said.

    “Com’on, Gret, lets phase,” Cassy said, taking her hand again.

    Gretta squeezed Cassy’s hand in consent and allowed Cassy to guide her, giving Jake subtle parting nod as they left.

    Jake nodded back at her.

    “Good seein’ ya, hun,” Jake said to her back as they disappeared into the crowd.

II

Zachery

    Zachery was well into his cups when Jake arrived. He was a shorter man, some called him squatty, with a large build which made him resemble a pit bull. On his head he wore his signature bandana, a skull cap, solid black, covering his ears. He wore armor, especially when drinking, and it mirrored that of Gretta’s armor made of the same black cristaline material with the same red crest on the breastplate.

Another man might of had trouble talking, let alone walking, had they been drinking for as long, but Zachery rose with ease from the stool and greeted Jake with a shake and a bear hug, as though he was still waiting on his first drink. When it came to drinking Zachery was a professional. It was nearly a second full time job, one he actually enjoyed. Alcohol had long stopped having much of an effect on his motor skills and though his whits slowed a bit, his temper only got more nuanced.

    He saw the look on Jake’s face the moment he stepped into the poorly lit pub, a dusty hole in a wall that served double duty as Zachery’s office and his favorite drinking establishment. The air was musty. The smell of damp wood, body odor, and spilled drinks was so distinct that the owner named the place after it; Putrefaction.

As pubs went, Putrefaction looked like so many others. The door entered on a dining area with tables and chairs, along the walls were some booths, and to the left the crowning jewel of the operation, the bar.

    The bar was forty feet of polished black wood. Hanging above it, every few feet, were fixtures that shone a dim light. Stools ran down the bar, but none were occupied. Zachery’s stool stood swiveled towards the door, but the rest were almost too perfectly squared up to the bar, betraying the illusion of squalor the room tried to project. A bottle sat on the bar by his stool, patiently awaiting its owners return.

    Behind the bar were the real objects of desire. Alcohol from a thousand different lands and a hundred different worlds. Every color imaginable darkened a shade or two by the dimness of the atmosphere. Bottles as glorious as the most luxurious hotel shared the perch with the most humble cheap liquor money could buy. Each bottle was doubled by the seamless mirror that paralleled the bar top. It was a massive piece of glass that nearly doubled the light, as little of it as there was.

    The bartender stood moping about, his reflection in the bar mirror that of a decrepit old man who spent too much of his life on the other side of the of the bar. His face, though, told a different story. Etched with harsh lines that told of a life of action, there was a sternness there. Though his movements seemed coarse, his eyes were just a little too sharp. Like the stools, his face was another subtle sign that this was more than a haven for the despicable and the destitute.

    Despite the selections, the pub was the least visited haunt in the whole of the city. It called to a special kind, the kind Zachery and Jake knew well. The people who graced the bar were not your common, run of the mill scumbags. Putrefaction was reserved for the worst of the worst, but even they, those ruthless few so bereft of social graces and anything resembling normal morality, those repudiated for their merciless cunning and lack of inhibition, still kept to the code if they wished to drink here.

    It could never be said that the patrons of Putrefaction where an organization, but they were a community. Admittance required special skills and even more importantly a special, if not warped, sense of honor. Here existed laws and social norms that ran parallel to the greater society. A network of sinister creatures whose only purpose in life was to serve the Forgotten Ones and heed the call when their name was whispered.

    Zachery didn’t need to inquired after the look on Jake’s face. The glint in his eyes, the shit eating grin, the way he held his head just a little higher. He already knew the secret; Gretta was back. For all the drama and bullshit, all the infighting and bloodletting, the four of them were the closest thing to family any of them had. It was no surprise that Jake was almost beaming, but Zachery went about his business. It had been a long time, and the old wounds were healed as far as he was concerned. Besides, he had more pressing things to think about, like the bottle waiting for him at the bar.

    “Jake, you’re late my friend,” Zachery said as they separated from their embrace.

    “Aye, yeah, well I’s got hung up in the market like I’s always do,” Jake replied and Zachery noted his lack of eye contact.

    “Come, let’s drink. There’s nothing better than a good drink to pass the hours before the Sacrament,” Zachery said as he headed back to his stool.

    “No, no there isn’t,” Jake agreed and he followed obediently.

    “So what news of the governorship?” Zachery asked.

    “Nothin’ so useful that it needs much discussion. Old fools still draggin’ feet about the tithe they owe,” Jake said.

    “No surprise there. I’m sure you made it clear that the Forgotten Ones remember,” Zachery said.

    “Oh, oh yes, I’s told them all about that, but-” Jake looked down, “beggin’ your pardon,  it ain’t a matter of ‘em forgetting the tithe,” Jake said.

    “No?” Zachery replied distantly, now looking in the direction of the bartender.   

    “No, they’s know all ‘bout it, they’s just not willing to own it,” Jake said, his voice taking on a darker tone as he raised his head again.

    Zachery’s attention returned to Jake and Jake recognized the look in his eyes.

    “Oh,” Zachery said. “Well in that case”

    “Indeed,” Jake replied.

    “Pity, I was hoping to share at least one drink with someone other than this here turtle of a bartender,” Zachery said.

    The bartender shot Zachery a looked that told him exactly where to go and what to do to himself.

    “Before you go, is there any other news?” Zachery asked, dropping the question so innocently that anyone other than Jake wouldn’t have understood his real meaning.

    “Well, umm, I’s suppose there is, but I’s just can’t be sayin’ at this here moment now,” Jake said, his eyes were now studying the bar top like a student cramming for final exam.

    Zachery smiled.

    “Indeed,” Zachery said.

    Jake rose from the stool and stood behind it, his large hands holding the backrest, swiveling the thing aimlessly.

    “Wells, I’s best be off to make good on ‘ems governors now. Sures a pity I missed that drink,” Jake said.

    “Its okay Jake, another time soon enough, we’ll all have a drink and a laugh,” Zachery said and gave a subtle nod.

    Jake returned the nod and left.

III

Cassy

    Cassy sat on the edge of the bed and watched while Gretta removed her armor. She remembered watching her put it on three years ago and, although it was a different apartment then, she was still struck with a strange feeling of vertigo It was as if the last three years had been a dream. They hadn’t been, she knew, and soon she’d have to tell Gretta about all the changes.

    “Are you alright?” Gretta asked.

    Cassy looked up and saw Gretta studying her face.

    “Yeah, I’m find, just spacing,” Cassy said.

    Gretta continued to fuss with the straps that held her breast plate on. Cassy stood and went to help her.

    “Its funny, you know, it feels like just yesterday you were putting this on,” Cassy said.

    Gretta only smiled at this, because in her mind, it wasn’t even that long ago.

    “Three years,” Gretta said. “And less than a day for me.”

    “Just promise me you’ll take it slow, lot’s happened while you’ve been ‘way, and not all of it you’re gonna like,” Cassy said.

    Gretta promised with a smile. The breastplate came free and Cassy dropped it to the floor. Gretta wrapped her hands around Cassy’s waist and kissed her.

    “I hope none of those changes are between us,” Gretta said through the kiss.

    Cassy’s hand moved through Gretta’s long black hair, feeling the silky texture slip between her fingers, a feeling she had missed more than she knew. She kissed her harder and then whispered, “never.”

    They both fell on the bed and enjoyed the feel of each others bodies as they made up for more than three years apart. When it was over, Cassy fell into a deep sleep, nuzzled in Gretta’s neck. Gretta just lay awake cherishing the moment. Concern for any changes could wait, for now, this was all she wanted or cared about.

    It was more than two hours before Cassy woke. Gretta’s eyes had finally grown heavy, but they opened to Cassy’s kiss and her lips joined in. The kissing became more passionate, but then Cassy pulled away.

    “We can’t again, we need to talk,” Cassy said.

    The sudden halt took Gretta aback and it was in this moment that she realized that something might be seriously wrong.

    “What is it Cass?” Gretta asked.

    “It’s a lot, things ain’t exactly been rosy since you’ve been ‘way,” Cassy said.

    “Is it Zachery?” Gretta asked, her voice notably colder.

    “Yeah and naw, Zachery’s come along since you remember,” Cassy said.

    “Come along? How?” Gretta pressed.

    “Well, he’s risen,” Cassy looked away from her for a moment and then continued, “he’s taken your place among the leaders,” she managed.

    Gretta looked away, it wasn’t news she hadn’t expected, but hearing it made it more real than ever just knowing it could have.

    “Okay, well, that is not unexpected, especially after-” Gretta started by Cassy cut her off.

    “There’s more,” Cassy said.

    “Okay,” Gretta said.

    Cassy looked away again, her eyes seemed to want to look anywhere but into Gretta’s.

    “Cassy, what is it?” Gretta asked.

    “Its Jake. Ain’t no one believe me, least of all Zachery, but there’s somthin’ not right going on there,” Cassy finally blurted with a meekness that said she didn’t think Gretta would believe her either.

    “Jake? What has he done?” Gretta asked.

    “I can’t say for sure, just know it. He’s too close to them Governors and lets ‘em slide too much. there’s somethin’ sketchy their, but none will even consider it, which is sketchy too,” Cassy said.

    “Alright, Cass, well figure that out together now that I’m back,” Gretta assured her. “What of the other factions?”

    “Well, most still tithing to the Forgotten Ones, but there’s a couple of breakaways that everyone’s wachin’,” Cassy said.

    “Who?” Gretta asked and the tone of her voice betrayed the concern she wanted to hide.

    “The Seven Suns and the Banshees, hear others tell it, they’ve merged and are workin’ the system,” Cassy said.

    “And this goes unanswered?” Gretta asked.

    “The leaders have proclaimed a lot of things, but none takin’ action,” Cassy said.

    “Not even Zachery,” Gretta said, and it wasn’t a question.

    Cassy let out a cynical laugh that wasn’t normal for her demeanor. “Not even Zachery? Zachery’s the one keeps them all to heel,” Cassy said, her voice trembling as she tried to hide the anger beneath.

    Gretta knew Cassy’s history with the Seven Suns and understood.

    “First things first, I have to see Zachery and -” an explosion that shook the building, stopping Gretta midsentence.

    Both women got up and ran to the window. Across the city there was a black plume of smoke rising up where the Governor’s Hall had been.

    “The Governors!” Cassy yelled.

    Gretta only stared at the smoke, her mind entering into that place of cold calculation where nothing but action and survival dwelled.

    “Get your things, we need to move,” Gretta said.

    For a short moment Cassy only looked at her, but then ran to the closet to get her bag.

    “What about your armor?” Cassy asked from the closet, but emerged to see Gretta was already half dressed again.

    “I could use your help with the breastplate,” Gretta answered and tried to smile.

    It took less time to adorn the armor as it took to remove it, in part because the city guards would be locking things down soon and in part because of training for this exact scenario.

    As they left the apartment Gretta looked around, but again Cassy grabbed her by the hand and this time almost dragged her through the streets. By now there were people out on the sidewalks, many of them running away from the blast in the opposite direction they were headed.

    A little ways up Cassy turned in to an alley. Gretta followed her, now keeping pace. At the end of the alley was a garage door. On the wall next to it was a fancy keypad that Cassy bent over and looked in. A read line traced up and down over her eye and a light on the keypad turned green, then she entered a code and the door began to roll up.

    “New place?” Gretta asked.

    “New ride,” Cassy replied.

    Behind the door was a small room. In the middle was something covered by a dingy old cloth tarp. Cassy walked towards it, the lights of the room coming on as she entered, and pulled the tarp off with one quick jerk, revealing the two seater hover pod beneath.

    “Well, this is new,” Gretta said.

    “I’ve been busy,” Cassy said while entering another code on the door panel of the pod.

    When she was finished the pod powered up. There wasn’t much sound, but the lights flicked on, the doors slid up on either side and it began to hover a foot off the floor.

    “Come’on,” Cassy said, as if Gretta needed to be reminded.

    Gretta got into the passenger side while Cassy was flipping switches in the driver’s seat.

    “Who are you and what have you done with Cass?” Gretta said with a laugh.

    Cassy laughed back, but Gretta sensed that there were serious reasons why Cassy was so prepared for this.

    “Here we go,” was the only warning Cassy gave.

    She pushed the steering wheel forward and the pod shot from the small garage like a bullet. Out and up it went. Cassy was no longer holding onto the controls. Gretta assumed she had put it in some kind of autopilot.

    For a while the two just stared out the window, looking at the sprawling city below. Gretta’s mind keep turning over the news so far. The Seven Suns and the Banshees? That didn’t make sense to Gretta. Although, it made perfect sense why the two factions would try to cut out, the confusion was why did the Forgotten Ones let them? Had things deteriorated so far since she was last here? She wanted to believe it had something to do with her, for her pride’s sake, but she suspected it was more a combination of allowing a green boy like Zachery in her place and the other leaders getting older and complacent. These things happened, she knew, as the leaders got rich and comfortable that became laxed and disconnected. But, Zachery was always one to make a name for himself doing something violent and surprising, so what was he up to now?

    As if reading her thoughts Cassy turned to her.

    “I know you wanna pin things on Zachery, but things changed since the last time you two spoke,” Cassy said.

    “You mean when he betrayed me?” Gretta said.

    Cassy felt the coldness of Gretta’s words and was taken aback.

    “Yeah, when things went to shit,” Cassy said.

    “So I leave, Zachery takes over, some kind of goddamn civil war erupts between the factions, apparently to the point where someone is bombing the Imperium itself, but it’s okay because things have changed?”

    “I’m not sayin’ anythin’ is okay, just-” Cassy broke off for a moment and looked out the window, “just give Zachery a chance,” she finished.

    “Give Zachery a chance? Back in the apartment you looked like you’d have killed him sure as dead if he’d been there. What’s going on?” Gretta was honestly confused at this point, too confused for her words to carry any sting at all.

    “Zachery’s fumbled some things, its true, but it isn’t he whose bombing the Imperium and he’s done right by us a lot,” Cassy said.

    “Didn’t do no right letting the Seven Suns and Banshees cut out,” Gretta shot back.

    “No, he didn’t, and for that-” Cassy stopped suddenly as the pod banked steeply and headed back towards the city.

    Gretta could read the concern on Cassy’s face.

    “Where we headed?” Gretta asked.

    “I’m not sure, I programmed it for a safe house outside the city, but we’re heading back now, I’m not sure why,” Cassy said as she scrolled through the view screen on the dash in front of her.

    “This doesn’t feel right, where did you get this pod?” Gretta asked, already knowing the answer.

    “Zachery,” Cassy said quietly, as she pulled up the new course on the screen.

    Gretta could see the course from where she sat and recognized the new destination.

    “Putrefaction,” Gretta said and Cassy heard more unmasked anger in the one word than she previously thought possible.

IV

Jake

    The Governor’s Hall was only ten blocks away from Putrefaction, Jake was sitting quietly at the bar nursing a drink when the bottles began to clatter and the building shook. He looked down at his watch, a fancy timepiece that he got for this special occasion, and pressed a button on the side.

    The watched beeped and on its face digital numbers began spinning around, counting up.

    Jake knew that he’d have the bar mostly to himself tonight, he had made arrangements to that end. Now he was just counting the seconds before the honored guests appeared. He had a bet with himself who would show up when, and the spinning numbers would prove out how close he was.

    As two minutes lapsed on the timer the bar door sang open and Zachery rushed in.

    “Jake, what in the gods name is going on?” He yelled, though not with any particular anger directed at Jake.

    “Well, I’s not sure, Zach, but froms what I’s saw you’s not going to like it,” Jake said.

    “From what you saw? What was that,” Zachery asked.

    “Well, I’s saw Gretta draggin’ Cassy towards the Governor’s Hall earlier today. She was talkin’ all about making things right an’ knowing how. I’s was there, well, you know, to talks to ‘em about the tithe, but I’s don’t think they  saws me in the rushin,” Jake said, eyes looking away.

    “Gretta’s back?” Zachery said, not letting on that he already knew.

    “Well’s, yeah,” Jake said, his eyes still looking anywhere other than Zachery’s face, “yeah, she’s beens back since earlier, but didn’t want no one knowing nothin’.”

    “And I’m no one now?” Jake asked.

    “No, that’s not what I’s meant. Its just that I’s figured she wanted some privacy and’s all. You know how she and Cassy were.”

    “Okay, so what are you sayin’ Jake? You sayin’ you thinks Gretta and Cassy had somethin’ do with this?” Zachery was weary now.

    “I’ms not sayin’ one way or ‘nother, buts there’s no reasons I’s know for ‘em to be there. You know Cassy’s been’s on the outs for a while now,” Jake said.

    “You’re tryin’ tell me that Gretta’s been gone for over three years, and the first thing she wants to do is rush off and bomb the Imperium? Why?” Zachery said, anger rising in his voice now.

    “I’s don’t know, maybe it’s nothin’, but-” Jake trailed off.

    “But what, Jake?” Zachery almost yelled.

    “But, well, you’s remember how things were when she phased the last time,” Jake said.

    “Jake, that was over three years ago,” Zachery said.

    “Three years for us,” Jake said and this time his eyes met Zachery’s.

    Zachery looked away, as though he didn’t like what he saw there.

    “Three years for us, yeah, that’s right,” Zachery said his voice heavy with contemplation.

    There was a sound on the roof like a small craft landing. Zachery recognized it immediately and pushed passed Jake towards the door in the back. Jake followed, glancing down at his time piece. Six minutes had passed. He smiled to himself as he went.

    Zachery had only made it to the base of the stairs leading to the roof when the door at the top burst open, Gretta stepped through and stormed down the steps towards Zachery. Zachery hardly had time to register her intent before she clocked him upside the head. Her armored hand broke the skin and left a cut above his left eye. He recoiled and she began to advance again, but Cassy was there and pushed between them.

    “Wait,” Cassy screamed. “Gods damn it, wait.”

    Jake was just entering the room now. Cassy turned to see him, but Zachery and Gretta’s eyes were locked on each other.

    “So it is true,” Zachery said rubbing his face, “You still livin in the past.”
    “Some things never get old Zachery,” Gretta said. “I ought to kill you right here.”

    Cassy’s focus on Jake was broken by the threat, her head snapping around to looked at Gretta again.

    “Finally making the move you wanted to make three years ago, huh?” Zachery said, straightening up now to face her.

    “My move?” Gretta said with honest shock, “You’re the one makin’ the moves here Zach, don’t be tryin’ to lay this at my feet.”

    Cassy saw the look of confusion pass over Zachery’s face and so did Jake.

    “Don’t you be listen to her Zach,” Jake spoke up, and at the sound of Jake’s voice Cassy’s attention returned to him.

    “She’s a playin you to catch you off your guard,” Jake continued.

    A disgusted look flashed across Cassy’s face, but Gretta didn’t hear him, all her focus was on Zachery, waiting for him to draw.

Zachery did hear and he weighed the words carefully. The cold calculations were clear on his face as he did the calculus before him. Cassy’s warnings about Jake flashed in his mind. Gretta’s words just now, heard through the sting of desecrated pride, were heard anew. Makin’ moves, he thought, and all the pieces began to click. He saw the situation before them, Gretta, maybe only seconds away from drawing on him, Cassy perhaps the only one stopping her, and Jake, hiding in the corner, away from it all, like a spider waiting for its venom to paralysis its prey. Zachery’s eyes left Gretta for a moment, just in time to see Jake make his move.

Jake saw the expression on Zachery’s face change. He watched as it went from absolute focus to distant contemplation. He knew what was going through his mind and knew this was his moment.

Jake drew the sidearm that rested easy on his waist. It was ruthless piece of death, too large for most but just right in his big hands. He saw Zachery’s eyes and met them as he pulled the trigger. The flash of light filled the small stairway as the plasma pulse left the tip of the weapon.

For a moment time seemed to slow to a stop as Zachery registered what had happened. He saw the draw, he saw the flash of light, he even saw it travel through the air as if it were a bubble floating oddly towards him and not his own death coming for him at the speed of light.

The pulse struck him in the chest and knocked him backwards into the wall. As his limp body slid to the floor, the only thought in his mind was of Jake’s eyes, just before. He say malice in those eyes. Hatred. But, he died unable to ask why?

Everything happened so quickly that Gretta couldn’t process it. Her mind, trapped in the quagmire of hate and certainty, fumbled the gear change. She looked up in time to see Jake turning his weapon on her. His snarling face filled her vision as her hand dropped to her own sidearm, but then all she saw was Cassy’s back as she lept between them. The second flash filled the room around her as Cassy’s body was thrown against her knocking her to the floor and striking her head hard on the wall behind her.

Her vision went blurry then. She looked down into Cassy’s lifeless eyes as Cassy lay on top of her. Those golden eyes staring up blankly, all their sparkle gone, and she felt herself slipping away. The last thing she saw as Jake standing over her, raising his weapon again, but she never saw the flash.

V

Errica

Errica woke to the sun pouring through the window. The day outside shone in, with all its summer beauty. Despite that, she was gripped by sorrow, as though the dream, slipping from her mind now, was something of pure tragedy. She freed her arm from the blanket and wiped the tears from her eyes. The movement stirred her dog Pepper, who lay at the foot of the bed. He grumbled his displeasure and signed.

It was just a dream, she thought.

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