A suffocating orange overlays the night sky, an abstract painting of man’s design. Underneath, the dark splash of a drifting speedboat sprays a concrete port as it cuts across an industrial wharf. Two young men peek out from the vessel and look around anxiously underneath overpriced sunglasses as they navigate the watery channels.
Kugo Schultze checks the built-in watch on his titanium-alloy wrist with a groan of annoyance. Thirty minutes past the arranged meeting time and counting. He glares at the newcomers with a hidden look of contempt from behind a boarded-up window.
While Kugo isn’t a person who lives and dies by the clock, the sight of the bastards are blaring vulgar music through visibly shaking amplifiers gets his blood boiling. They’re late, as well. Late.
“Cheer up, chief. Let’s get this over with and get with a stiff drink after this. On me.”
Cole Shepherd speaks up the other side of the derelict entrance, managing to look precisely how Kugo feels.
“People like those two would be late to their own goddamn funeral. You’re going to go gray by forty if you keep worrying about garbage like them.”
“I know, I know…”
“That’s how this job goes, Schultze. Pay’s shit, job’s shit, but somebody has to do it.”
“I know, Shepard.”
Kujo irritatedly mumbles as he checks over himself in the reflection of a nearby broken mirror. Caraceni suit smothered by a well-fitting overcoat. Short, messy slicked-back hair. Heavy bags underneath the eyes. Unorderly stubble. He scarcely had time to sleep this past week, much less clean himself up, but it helps him blend in with the rabble.
Their hideout appears to be feeling much of the same. It might’ve once been a naval workshop at one point, but it’s little more than an abandoned shack at the edge of town now. Nothing has really been the same since then, anyways.
“I’ve got somewhere to be right about now.”
“Decided to break your vow of chastity, eh?”
Kujo eyes Cole with a cocked eyebrow. He decides to go with his companion’s aggressive imagination.
“Something like that. She’s got bright blue eyes, luscious curves, and a chirp that’ll put a songbird to shame.”
“Lucky man, lucky man. I haven’t seen my fiancé in a few long days. While you were off setting up these stings, I was hellishly busy on something… big.” Cole flashes his signature cheeky grin. “I’ll drink to your success.”
“You’ll drink to anything, Shepherd.”
Cole chuckles. “Well, aren’t you excited to finally get some action?”
“Hell no.” Kujo taps out a fresh cigarette on a spare AzvtoVEZ headlight. If the manufacturers can’t find a use for it, it’s good enough as an ashtray. “I’ve got no time for something that.”
“Sounds like somebody’s nervous.”
“Save it for later. Let’s go.”
The two push open the falsely boarded door into the moonlit piers beyond. Cole carefully slings a small blue duffel bag over his shoulder on the way out. Nobody else is around, besides the odd stray mutated rat crawling through old exposed pipes and the cracked pavement. Decommissioned gantry cranes loom overhead, their rusted and gutted frames standing vigil over their own graves. If it weren’t for the Corporates locked in eternal bidding wars, maybe this place could’ve been turned into someplace useful. Fresh puddles reflect lights from the bright skyline in the background. The two thugs scramble to kill the engine, and the gentle ambience of the distant city fills the air in the moments that follow. One wears a yellow jacket, while the other taps noisily away at a datapad, smiling absentmindedly. He flashes solid gold teeth and holds a paper bag underneath his shoulder.
As Cole flags the two men down with a casual wave, Kujo flicks away his spent smoke into the water. He grumbles underneath his breath while appraising the two out of the corner of his eye. Urbanites. Fools who drown themselves in money, lights and drugs to fill out their lives in the only way society has left for them. People who cover up foul attitudes and idiocy with tasteless shows of wealth. Addicts who chase a fading high of commercialism and promises of an easy life. As ugly as it is, these people are half of what’s left of the so-called American dream. Not that it matters right now.
The Urbanites swiftly clamour to the pier, haphazardly tying their gaudy gold-trimmed boat to a cleat. Kujo is a stockily built man of English descent, while his companion appears to be a smaller framed easterner. The only time they’d look like they belong with each other is in a commercial for overpriced suits. Kujo internalizes names for the two dealers quietly. Jacket and Goldtooth. It’s good enough for a working title.*
“Hey, where’s the money?” Jacket suddenly speaks out, pointing aggressively between the two suits.
“What’s the big idea, making us wait so long? We were worried out of minds. If you wait any longer, a rent-a-pig might’ve come down on us for loitering.” Kujo steps forth with his hands in his pockets, looking slightly annoyed.
“Money first, Gwelio.”
“Listen up, you little shit-for-brains. I’m only here because I hear this is the shit that’s directly from the other side. Fresh. Show me the goddamn goods..”
*Gold-teeth’s expression falls as Kujo’s vocabulary hits him.*
“Shit-for-brains? Did you just call us shit-for-brains?”
“How many times do I have to say it for you to get it? Shit. Brain.” Kujo stares Goldtooth down, malice burning bright in his eyes.
Cole steps between the two groups with the duffel bag raised. “Hey now, let’s do business. You wanted the money? Here.”
As soon as Cole raises a wad of hundred-dollar Nuyen, the dealers’ expressions immediately soften like a dog drooling before dinner. Their eyes greedily follow Cole’s hand to the bag, where two dozen similar wads lie in neat stacks.
“Fifty, just as we agreed upon. Now, the goods…?”
Goldteeth manages to tear his eyes away from the stacks of cash and begins unwrapping the paper bag underneath his arm hurriedly. He takes out a transparent container around a foot wide and presents the glowing contraption with pride. Stainless steel and ballistic glass make up the heavy-duty exterior. Small mechanized holes at the top allow for some circulation.
The bright white glow fades as soon as he hits a button at the top of the container, revealing the figure of a small greenish humanoid within.
The slim outline of a woman from the waist up, with a dark purple flower on the side of dark green hair.
Below, the rest of her body disappears into a flower and connecting roots.
Her viridescent foliage waves like leaves in the wind.
“Behold, Mister. A fresh Alraune.”
A living being. It weakly raises its arm to tap on the glass, barely shaking the container.
“Hmm… Looks a bit withered…”
“No, no, she’s perfectly healthy! She was caught on the other side just a few weeks ago.”
A high-quality Alraune is hard to find. While useful as slaves of many different kinds and nectar sources, they can be processed into a potent “virescent dust,” a magical powder that provides a high that no other drugs can compare. Taken in smaller doses, it can augment a human’s abilities to an extraordinary extent. Sight, speed, hearing, thinking. Although the exact process of creating the drug is kept a secret, it’s generally known that living, younger Alraune produce purer batches. The market price would be around a dazzling nine hundred thousand for how much a specimen like this one could make.
“Shepard, what do you think?”
“I think it was worth the wait.”
Kugo relaxes his shoulders and lets out a small sigh. He gives an approving look to his partner. Both Jacket and Goldteeth chuckle mirthfully in turn. The built-up stress of the situation slowly drains away as the four men laugh away their woes.
“The fruits of your labour. Enjoy it.”
Cole carefully exchanges the duffel bag with Goldteeth, making sure not to jostle the goods.
“Yes, thank you, Gweilo!”
“With that over with, let’s get to actual business.”
The dealer’s smiles freeze in place as Kugo draws a sleek pistol from a hidden waist holder and a leather wallet from his coat. Cole’s smile only widens as he pulls his own from his jacket. With his free hand, Kugo flips open the wallet to reveal a badge and ID.
“Yojimbo Security. You’re under arrest.”
“You two shitheels are hereby charged with human trafficking, kidnapping, and smuggling. On your knees, or I’ll take them out for you.”
The thugs look at each other with a mutual look of contempt. Their bodies tense up as if they were about to bolt. The area is almost entirely flat, the boat’s engine is off, and the black waters offer nothing but a chilly death this time of year. Their chances aren’t high in either direction. They swear and cuss in a combination of English and their native tongue as they slowly raise their hands.
“Liars! Fucking rent-a-cop dogs!”
“Say what you want. Schultze, read them the contract.”
*Kujo approaches Jacket with his pistol raised, ready to fire at a moment’s notice. He recites the private rights with a hint of vitriol.*
“As per Shinkenpai’s public defence contract, you are now under Yojimbo’s jurisdiction. You have the right to remain silent. If you can’t afford a crafty lawyer to try to bail you out, you’re shite out of luck, buddy. You will be sent to your choice of a corporate or government judge, and if you’re really lucky, you’ll spend the rest of your life in wage slavery.”
“Go to hell, pigs!”
“Big words from a big man.”
Kujo clasps a pair of manacles on Jacket and hauls him up by the collar of his shirt. Cole manages to grab the duffel bag filled with cash after putting Goldteeth in cuffs. It’s almost over now.
“Cole, you best keep your promise about paying. The Corps are on freelancers these days.”
“Hah, you’ve got it. I’ve got money to spare.”
The pleasant chatter is interrupted by the sound of a vicious metallic cling. Kujo’s eyes dart over to the source to see Goldteeth charging with a vicious look in his eye at Cole. The scleras of his eyes turned pitch black in a blink of an eye, and faint wisps of blood-red fire streaks from the corners of his eyes. His wrists are bloody and torn, the skin around them charred to the bone.
Kujo reaches out for his partner with a shout caught in his throat.
By the time he manages to aim his pistol, it’s already too late. In a single moment, Goldtooth swipes his hand against Cole’s throat with such ferocity that it sends him flying to the side in a crumpled heap. A vivid spray covers the scene in a fresh coat of red. The raging thug turns to howl at the moon as if basking in the kill.
Kujo fires several shots at the attacker without hesitation. Each .45 ACP round flies with a blue flash of light and strikes its mark. Neck, Chest, Shoulder. Despite the wounds, Goldtooth only staggers a single step back. In a single moment, he lurches at the speedboat’s windshield and tears it off its hinges. The sound of shearing metal and cracking glass fills the air as the projectile sails through the air.
An explosion of light flares in Kujo’s vision as the blunt force of the impact sends him flying through the ramshackle workshop’s boarded-up windows. An old workbench is kind enough to cushion the fall, but it crumbles underneath the force. Sub-Dermal plates protect his vitals from being impaled by warped steel, glass shards and splintered wood, but it still hurts like hell. Each glass shard embedded in his skin burns like industrial acid.
“Feeble Beast, broken already? [Wuzegyr-ne-cieble-arzki?]”
*The man starts speaking in another voice entirely. Faintly feminine, yet merciless as they come. Genraszego, the tongue of the other side. Kujo grits his teeth and aims his pistol at the blurry figure.*
“Your manufactured toys can never defeat one of mine. This little one is mine to command, mine to bring, as are all under the crimson sky. I’ll be taking her back under my wing. [Artificialis-kito-ja-occi-mina. Zeulia-mina-usus, Zeulia-mina-nandate-ku-laxi-noir. Ja-cornu-zi-ka.]”
“Alright, you Alien bastard, stop right goddamn there…”
As the Urbanite turns, Kujo catches a glimpse of his eyes. The man’s gaze is empty, devoid of any signs of humanity. It’s as if looking into a void, a black hole that consumes all.
He’s only seen that gaze once before. Back when everything started. An omen of death and despair. For the first time in a very long time, Kujo feels his heart skip a beat.
Goldtooth darts to the transparent container and runs off with it at incredible speed. Kujo pushes the shattered windshield off him, but the pain is too much to keep going. His heart yearns to chase, but his legs refuse to work. He fires off a few more shots as the monster runs off into the night.
Kujo calls out weakly as he crawls from the rubble. Jacket trembles quietly with a fresh foul puddle forming at his crotch.
Cole Shepherd, Kujo’s only partner since his contract with Hachiman Solution’s began. Six years and counting. They’ve saved each other’s lives countless times by now.
*He suppresses the bile in his throat as he crawls to the red smear where his partner once stood. Cole’s throat is torn to ribbons, and his life continues to pool underneath him. No pulse. He died without saying anything, without getting to see his fiance one last time, without one last drink.*
“Cole… God Damnit…”
Kujo lets his bloodied arms slump as he rests against a cast-iron cleat. He doesn’t know if he can face Cole’s fiance after this. He has barely enough energy to rip a smoke from his shredded coat and activate the built-in flame on his pinky.
Heavenbound smoke dances to the tune of distant sirens wailing in the night.
2060 A.D. was the end of the world.
At least, the world as mankind knew it.
The apocalypse crept up on the world quietly. The phenomenon of Coronal Heating was only thought of as an oddity for most of the twenty-first century. It was known that solar flares and coronal heating came from the same source, magnetic activity within the sun itself. Research into magneto-hydrodynamics only went so far before one day, a solar wind powerful enough to reverse the earth’s magnetic field knocked out most satellites and unshielded technology struck amidst a global economic cold war.
Unlike the previous wars against established countries, this war was fought between governments and hyper-transnational corporations. Despite the rapid advancement of technological growth, nations were pushed to the brink as territory and unrest were exchanged in the new global game. With the worldwide infosphere disrupted, a new dark age briefly loomed over mankind.
This was only the start of something else entirely.
The realization swept over the remnants of nations like wildfire. As soon as backup satellites were relaunched, people began to realize the southern hemisphere was utterly alien with blood-red oceans and completely different landmasses. Fantastical humanoid races that were never thought to be possible existed in the new territories. Demons, angels, elves, dragons, monsters, and more. In a blink of an eye, “The Interweave” had changed the world.
Earth’s remaining governments and corporate states had a target to wage imperialist war upon. Dubbed as the continents of Aurora after first contact, they found themselves evenly matched against the residents of the new realm with technology and machines of war.
Although the societies encountered were medieval technologically, the manipulated forces unseen to the human eye — Magic. Near-Mythological figures could slice bullets from the air, untold myriads of spells reigned devastation upon armies, the terror of an unknown weapon reigning freely on the battlefield. Even then, The Auroreans with their innate might could not overcome the tools of their new enemies either, as new-age tactics and weapons of mass destruction proved too much.
After a long and bloody world war of attrition, the global state of affairs settled into an uneasy mutual isolationist truce, with all nations picking up pieces from past conflicts. Yet in this fractured world, there are several exceptions.
Several cities near the equator have been mutually established as neutral zones where both sides may mingle and trade freely.
Earthling run Shinkenpai, or locally known as Neo-Hana, is one of these places. A corporate metropolis built in a conjunction effort with the former state of Hawaii, it stands as one of the world’s most significant melting pots. Here, a diverse cast of races and cultures meld together in the technology and architecture that humanities have cultivated for thousands of years. Under the glamour and neon lights, crime runs rampant — Murder, smuggling, kidnapping, extortion, terrorism, and more — without an end in sight.
The privatization of security demanded a new service needed to be provided to combat these crimes that involved both Humans and Auroreans.
Hachiman Solutions, a macro-technology corporation answered the call with a state of the art task force.
The Yojimbo Security Service.
“I don’t like this, Chief. I don’t like any of this.”
“Me neither, Schultze. They found the perp’s body floating in Kawela Bay.”
“…The Kawela Bay? The one to the north? That’s more than just a run away from here.”
Away from the tarp-covered and police-marked crime scene, the embers of a cigarette stain the hood of a Yojimbo Kite-class cruiser. A bald, well built middle-aged man of native descent clicks his tongue in displeasure as he watches over the investigators working busily on the scene.
Chief Kaleo Aikau, the current head detective of the Yojimbo. He’s a man that Kugo’s known from the old days, a family friend in youth. If things had been different, the chief would already be reaping the fruits of his labour in a cushy retirement town a few islands over.
Kugo takes another drag of his smoke, suffering the acrid smoke that swells and sting his lungs and throat. It’s not the worst thing he’s felt tonight, all things considered. The nanite bandages wrapped around his chest burn intensely as they work their magic, knitting what’s of his skin back together. He’s not sure how much of his flesh is original at this point, but he’s got better things to worry about.
“That shouldn’t be possible. It’s only been a few hours.”
“Normal crooks can’t do that, but we’re not dealing with normal crooks.”
“I want a SIN analysis on both of the perps. Mind-rip the living one ASAP. We need all the info we can get here.”
“I’ll phone it in and get the mages to take over from here tonight. Go get some rest.”
Kujo scowls at his own reflection in the tinted glass, hacking out a bloody gob of spit. “No goddamn way. I’m going to get the bastard that killed Cole. The dealer was being controlled like a goddamn puppet.” He rubs his forehead with another grunt of exertion. Too many things are running in his mind. The possibilities, the motives, the methods.
“That’s an order, Agent. You’re only going to get yourself killed if you rush headfirst into danger.”
“Goddamn…” There’s no way Kujo can let this case go. Cole Shepard, one of his best friends and most trusted comrades. Gone in a blink of an eye. He runs the details in the back of his mind. Rapid Monsterization, potential teleportation Magecraft, somebody pulling strings in the shadows. This isn’t any ordinary case.
“I’m… sorry about Cole. He was a good man.”
The exhaustion of a full week of work comes crashing down in an instant. Catnaps in 24/7 fast food joints, caffeine pills, and all you can eat stress buffet. Kujo lets out another tired grunt as he turns to look at the night sky. “I don’t know how I’m going to break the news to his fiance…”
Kaleo glances over to Kujo with a sympathetic look. “I’ll talk to her. I’ll need your report by ten tomorrow.”
“No, no… This is something I have to do. I’ll be off.”
Kujo hears a faint farewell over the sound of the forensic team as he walks to his beloved hoverbike hidden snugly between two warehouses, but his mind is somewhere else right now. Above everything that happened tonight, those eyes linger in his mind. He can’t place it at the moment, but he’s seen them somewhere before. He takes out his frustration by snubbing his smoke on a wall. Kujo swears that he’ll get to the bottom of this, no matter what. With one last look at the scene, he slides his helmet over his head and races into the brightly lit streets, letting the skyscrapers and neon wash away the night.
The Sun is already poking her head over the horizon by the time Kujo slams the door to his shielded parking garage. Although owning an accommodation larger than a prison cell is priceless, a stable sleep schedule is a luxury that he could never truly afford. Even if it’s at the edge of corporate territory a long way from downtown, his home is safe enough to sleep without a gun under the pillow.
He sits at a dimly lit workbench with his head in his hands, the haunting sob of a heartbroken woman echoing in his ears. Tragedy and loss can be found in every shadow of every skyscraper, but it always hurts when it strikes close to the heart. The widow slammed him with every insult and shriek in the book after he broke the news. It would’ve been vastly preferable if she hung up in a fit of rage after crippling him with a thousand curses, but the worst part was the cold silence that followed. Reading people was always part of the job, but silence is a frayed emotional tightrope. One misstep and things will never be the same. He hung up without another word, knowing full well that anything he said would’ve been taken in the worst way possible.
His abode is a humble affair, a refurbished relic of a simpler time. Pasty egg white walls pair perfectly with scratched up hardwood flooring and mismatched decor that looks like it belongs in a pre-war museum. Two bedrooms, A private study, a living room, a kitchen, and a few extra rooms for specific purposes. More places than most people can count these days.
The only thing willing to greet him is a spherical drone that rolls into view past trash bags and stray containers of instant ramen, beeping and chirping without a care in the world. Blue microlights cast long shadows along the walls as it comes to a stop right at his foot.
“Keeping everything locked down, Bit? Good, great. Remind me to give you an arm so you can take out the bloody trash for me.”
The drone rolls along, doing its best to make conversation in binary blips as Kujo tidies up the place. The halls were nearly spotless when he left, and now it looks like a junk-food themed tornado came raging through one night. Picking up empty discount beer cans and trash should be something much underneath his job description, but he’s grown used to it at this point. If anything, it brings a faint smile to his face.
After tidying up to a moderate degree, he knocks twice on the source of all the garbage before letting himself in.
“Hey, Kid. Go to sleep.”
The backroom is a steel and holographic coffin for one. Dozens of repurposed monitors and holographic displays create a local planetarium of incomprehensible data. A state of the art Holodeck rings like gunfire over the industrial hum that permeates the air. A technological savanna of cables and spare parts line the ground, and what little tablespace remains is taken up by busy scrawled out notes and remains of half-eaten junk food. The stench of grease, coolant, cheap alcohol and sweat mingled to make a nauseating cocktail. In the middle of it all, a young woman lays crucified in a web of her own making, the final nail jacked into her temple’s implant.
“Later. Need to finalize something.”
She rips out the jack and swivels around to face Kujo, the light slowly returning to her gray eyes. The bags underneath hers are just as heavy as his. Long, messy auburn hair frames sharp features that promise a deadly sting. The Kid could’ve been a modern beauty if she bothered to take care of herself in the slightest.
Kujo leans against the doorframe with one last bedtime beer. For a moment, he’s not too sure who’s been through more shit by appearance alone. Bit rolls past his leg and leaps into the Kid’s lap like an oversized cat.
“Looks like you’ve been busy, Boss.” The Kid flashes her natural incomprehensibly smug grin as she pets Bit.
“Yeah, yeah. Save the snark for later, Kid.” Kujo waves a red Credstick from his back pocket and flicks it over with a trained motion. “There’s your allowance for the month.”
“Nice. Oh.” Her eyes go wide as she spots the number of Nuyen allocated to her. Ten thousand. It’s more than what most mainland wage slaves make in a year. Quadruple of her usual allocation. The Kid looks up at Kujo with a note of worry in her eyes. “Did something happen?”
“Nothing that a night of sleep can’t fix. Is it enough to make you take out the trash and shower before I wake up?”
“Take care, then. I can already hear my pillow whispering sweet nothings into my ear.”
“Have a good morning, Boss.”
Kujo closes the door behind him and drains the rest of his beer in a single long gulp. Brewed beer is a rarity these days, but the artificial stuff is just as good. Almost the same flavour, and strong enough to also work as a sleeping aid for cheap. A few more cans disappear as he settles down for the night. It’s an empty toast to Cole’s memory, but it’s the best that can be done right now. Eventually, his thoughts drift back to the Kid. When did they stop using each other’s real names..?
It’s something to chew on for tomorrow. If there’s no rest for the wicked nor righteous in this world, a chemically induced coma will have to do.