Fiction

The Chromatic Graft Part 2

a continuing Ariel Moxie EP

Ariel Moxie jolted awake in a fit of rage. Her heart jackhammered against her rib cage and her nails dug into her palms. It had been months since her last attack and she wasn’t expecting one now, not with the peace she’d felt the last few days.

Desperation shot her hand to her right ear lobe. She clicked in the back of the speaker in her plug and ‘Rumble’ blasted in the small room. After spinning the dial on the underside to turn down the volume, she held her left lobe for three seconds until the harps played. Salvation was close because ‘Maelstrom’s Lullaby’ played. Her thumb found the right volume.

The two channels of the song played separately at the outer edges of her mind. Deep breaths, she told herself. She filled her diaphragm and slowly blew it out her nose, focusing on the music and trying to calm herself. Deep breaths. Too bad she couldn’t deal with the rage like she dealt with pain. It held on, wouldn’t let her just shake it off. The sounds moved in space, came together at the center of her brain and brought her mind into focus. Now that she had regained control, Ariel’s heartbeat slowed, harmonizing to the music. She released her mind, let it search deeper for the calm in the storm on its own. It brought her down further, thankfully to a happy thought. The Bassline had been drifting on the open water, the waves lightly bobbing the stern up and down. They had stopped to catch lunch. A fish was on the onboard grill sprinkled with capers. Ariel and Nick danced in the warm sunlight.

‘Freestyle’ played. They were several feet apart. Nick was shuffling his feet but soon he was hop-steppin’ to the left and to the right. Ariel opened her large mouth and laughed, clapping her hands to spur him on. He bopped his head forwards and back, pivoted around in circles, making his way towards her. She wrapped her hands around his neck, her fingers interlocking at the scruff of his hair. His hands went to her hips. They shimmied back and forth, their eyes smiling into the others. He pulled her close and raspberry’d her cheek.

Ariel giggled at the time and heard it echo in her room now.

She pushed off his chest. Nick grabbed her hand, held it over her head and pirouetted her away. She turned on her music and found her selection. The transmitters in their plugs shook hands, sending data back and forth. The two sets of speakers pulsed and the tracks fused together. The composition combined into ‘Freestyle Rumble’. The electronic system Ariel had created combined with Nick’s musical compositions allowed them to anticipate the other; that was a crucial product of its design. Nick knew Ariel’s moves and Ariel knew Nick’s. They were in sync. Ariel weaved in and out, moving her arms to the rhythm. Nick skated backwards, opening his palm to her in acknowledgement. Ariel danced. Nick grooved. The sun shone. The fish burned.

Gradually, the memory and then the melody receded from Ariel’s mind. She fell asleep with Lullaby hanging in the room and didn’t notice the slight constricting sensation running down her arms.

“I heard music coming from your room this morning. Is everything all right?”

Ariel groggily opened her eyes and found herself staring at the perky Ellie Fogarty sitting behind her news desk. Fogarty’s lips flapped no sound but a caption at the bottom of the screen read ‘The prisoner’s shuttle landed safely at ArrisCo.’ The text switched to ‘See you in 30-to-life guys and dolls.’ It took Ariel a moment to realize she was lying on her back in the living room. Ueda was sitting cross legged to her right, pushing his metal hari needle into the palm side of her forearm.

“You slept-walked in here this morning and have been asleep ever since.”

Her mouth was dry. “Rough night. Lumpy floor.”

“The fits take a lot out of you, don’t they?” the large man asked, handing her a glass of water.

“I love you Ueda but I don’t want to talk about it.”

Ariel pushed herself off her back and greedily drank. Her arm so close to her face, she could see that the blues in her tattoo were vivid. Ink on his needle confirmed that he’d already finished the backside of her arm: the gray clouds sparked and shot a bolt of lightning into the turbulent seas, churning the ocean; the waves crashed and their crests foamed. Those seas calmed as they made their way around her arm where they surrounded a massive machine with turbines. She continued gulping

Ueda wiped the blue ink off his needle and dipped it into the steel grey. “Do you know why I love tattoos?” he asked.

Ariel stopped. They’d spoken about many things over the years, from philosophy to mechanics. He’d never talked about this before and she’d never asked. It was an absolute. She pulled the glass away and dabbed at her mouth with her collar.

“At this point, I’ve done this so long that it’s a part of my very being, so it can be hard to articulate why, exactly. I guess I’ve had different reasons at different times. I do know where it starts: with a single dot.” He pressed the needle into her skin. It left a steel grey mark. He pressed it again. And again. “You put enough dots close enough together and you get a picture.”

He was filling in the hydro-electric generator on the underside of her wrist. The water violently pummeled the turbines.

“Everything has an initiating event, a reason from which it was birthed into existence. Whether it’s an aesthetic work or an emotion, it can come from a small moment of inspiration or a horrendous trauma.”

Ariel felt her left arm throb under its bandages; she smelled the hint of something burning, a distant memory her brain refused to let her forget. Her heart hit once against her sternum.

“An artist recognizes that moment and distills it to its most fundamental components. A tattoo is art on a living canvas. It’s one of the few mediums where you have proof that you’ve made someone different than they were before.”

Electricity from the generator shot down wires, seemingly, into the muscles of her arm.

“As it ages, the body expands and the person grows into who they are. Their activities shape their muscles, their exposure to the sun tans their skin and their demeanors cultivate the contours of their face.

“Take you for example. You’ve taken good care of your skin. You’ve stayed clean but haven’t scrubbed away the oils your body is so good at producing to take care of itself. I can better predict how it will change as you age.”

“Like if I get fat around my arms? Don’t want that ocean to get bigger,” she joked, trying to stabilize.

“That happens to some women. It won’t to you. You’ll get it in your back, under your shoulder blades.  The body stores fat in bands and every one in different places. If you start gaining weight, it will go to your chest.”

“Can’t wait,” she said.

He said matter-of-factly, “Don’t worry, your beauty adapts to its age.” She knew he meant it. “I planned for the changes in weight. The binding will elongate proportionally as your skin stretches. My math is correct.”

“So what started as a dot will fully shape into a complete picture.” he continued. “A child becomes an adult. Their body becomes a monument to their life.”

The steel of the generator was complete. Ueda wiped the ink off the needle. He dipped into the black and began carving a thick line around the electrical plant, giving shape to form.

“And what happens when they get older? Will they look at themselves and like what they see? Will they feel like they made the right choices when they needed to make them? Will they love their tattoos or hate them?

 “They can be so many things, to so many people. They can be a stylistic expression of the self, a celebration, a reminder…or a warning to others. They can be all those things and all tell us about who a person is and who they were. That’s what I love about them. But once in a great while, a tattoo can be so much more.”

“How about a coffin?” Ariel cut in. Deep breaths. “Life is too short to spend even a moment unhappy. Be with loved ones, doing the things you want to do. Do them free of regrets. Because maybe, just maybe, our time on this Earth is all the time we have. It’ll throw shit at you that you can’t predict. Get over it. You’ll grow and collect your scars, just like everyone else.” She presented her left arm. “You remember what mine looked like before you covered them? I do.” She needed to turn on Lullaby.

“Those weren’t your fault,” he reassured.

“There are things that can be buried, but not forgotten.” She could feel the blood in her fingers. She was going to break, press her right lobe.

Ueda put his hand on hers. “But the pain they caused can be eased.”

Ariel felt the warmth from her friend’s touch. She focused on it. Her heartbeat levelled. The fog dissipating, she realized what he was doing. She chuckled through her teeth. “You’re good, old man, but that’s all you’re getting from me.”

“All I want is for you to confront it.”

Ariel closed her eyes. They remained in silence for minutes.

“You were going to say something,” Ariel noted. “’Once in a while a tattoo can be so much more.’ What is that?”

Ueda moved his hand from hers to the needle. “The soul represented on the body.” He made one last insertion and put the steel pick on the small wooden tray. He stood up and looked down on Ariel.

“All we have left is your back. We’ll be finished tomorrow.”

Ariel opened her eyes. “May I have a few minutes before you wrap it up?”

Ueda nodded and pulled her to her feet.

She put on her shirt and walked through his house. This was Ueda’s life. From his living room and its small feminine touches, down the hallway past his sensibly furnished bedroom and into the guest room she’d been staying. Everything looked the same as when she’d first come those years before. Ariel stopped in front of the mirror.

Starting at her wrist, she unwrapped the bandages around her left arm. She exposed the fiery reds near her hand. The burning furnace on the underside of her wrist drew power from the molten magma. She moved up to the rider on her bicep and the silhouette of the woman. The green forest behind the two wrapped around her upper arm to where the erupting volcano belched ash and brimstone into the sky so thick that the smoke suffocated her shoulder.

The wraps unwound from her right elbow. The turbulent seas moved up through the clouds and into the cold blackness of space. The stars twinkled and the planets hung and the asteroid belt went up her tricep. A rocket ship on her shoulder sprayed missiles into the vacuum.

She stared at her reflection within the ornate frame. The two generators sent energy pulsating up both her arms to the two large gears across the top of her back. These two concepts- her past on her left and her aspirations on the right- were what drove her forward, powering the machine called Ariel Moxie.

*

The faint sound of a motor carried over the round mass of land that jutted up against the stars of the night sky. Slowly, a glow revealed the hill until the light became a shaft extending up. It revealed its source, the headlamp on a white dirt bike, coming over the crest and turning down to illuminate the tricky terrain it had had to navigate. Carefully, it made its way, avoiding the obvious hurdles, its two riders shifting their weight and maintaining their seat. The bike reached the bottom and levelled off.

The rider at the rear gripped the chin of their helmet and pulled it off. Thick, black hair billowed out and caught the wind. Yuki Tsukino could count on one finger when she’d felt this free before. It had been summer and her father let Makoto take her out for a day but with the insistence that they be accompanied by a guard. Always a guard. They drove through the countryside, down the coast and sat for lunch in a field listening to the cicadas. For a few hours, Yuki forgot the home she left until she was forced to return. Her eyes teared from the rush of the cool air against them. The bike skidded to a stop, pushing her against the strong, slender back of her companion in front and leaving the droplets on his back.

Nick Beat flipped up his helmet’s visor and pulled the folded photo of the map from his back pocket, setting it on The 62’s handlebars to study its topography. Yuki swung her leg over the bike and rubbed the soreness from her butt. Nick looked down at the map; Yuki looked out at the land sprawling before her.

“We’re close,” Nick concluded.

“I recognize this,” Yuki claimed.

It was a labyrinth of excavated rock set at two elevations; one a story tall, the other some four or five. It was obviously man-made, but the entire production was haphazard and slapdash. Large channels ran between walls of stone that crisscrossed over itself and led to an access way near where they had stopped.

“It was a rushed strip job when the colonies needed resources. What the diggers couldn’t easily extract they used munitions on, that’s why the harder rock is so unevenly excavated. The softer more fertile soil was transported to the moon.”

“I don’t get it. You know about this, seem to love fighting, but you spent a five hour train ride writing music.”

“I’ve written hundreds of songs. Don’t remember most of them.”

“I’ve never heard of you.”

“Ever heard 8-Bit Cinema’s song ‘Pixel Hustle’?”

“You wrote that?”

“Maybe,” Nick said coyly. The statement was true; Beat had written a dozen 8-Bit songs, maybe he’d written that one. “Only a few people I won’t write music for.”

“Like who?” But Nick didn’t answer. Yuki didn’t press. “How do you go from a musician to a treasure hunter?”

“It was something to do while my partner’s busy.”

“What’s he doing right now?”

“She’s probably sleeping after a long hard day lying down.”

“Doesn’t that bother you? That you’re here and she’s there?”

“She works hard,” Nick said plainly. “She deserves the break.”

Yuki stared at the picture of her back in Nick’s hand. She thought about the years of obsession, mystery, and angst that it had brought. She hated it.

“I’m glad I came with you.”

“And out from under your parents thumbs?”

Yuki nodded her head. “I’ve never met my mother. My nursemaid Makoto was always with me… until a few weeks ago. Now it’s just my father and I.”

“Don’t forget the full regiment of yakuza thugs at his command.

“My entire life, he told me what to do, what to eat. I couldn’t gain a pound. Do you know what it’s like to be treated like an object?”

“No but at nineteen I was shot and left for dead in the middle of the Atlantic.”

Yuki thought of all the things she had intended to say, but they evaporated into space, her incredulous laugh filling the void instead. When her eyes reopened, she noticed the nearby cliff. The top of the peak was flat where the others on either side were tipped, as if it had been sheared clean off. The one behind it was the same, as was the one behind that.

Nick folded up the map and returned it to his back pocket. “I hope it’s not down there.”

“It’s definitely down there,” Yuki said, tracing the deformed peaks. “Look,” she said, pointing.

But a loud whirring sound brought her attention to the hill they’d just navigated. A neon-blue hue was just on the opposite side, jolts of electricity cascading out. The sound and the light doubled in intensity with every passing second until a massive machine vaulted over the ridge and hung in the air. It had two large tires comprised of pulsating energy around magnetic spokes. The vehicle completely cleared the steep hill face, hanging in the air before crashing down so hard that its blazing rear wheel momentarily lost control before stabilizing.

The giant bike raced in Yuki’s direction, a hand reaching out from behind the large windshield. Just as it got to her, she was pushed out of the way- Nick pulled her close and bore her weight, scraping his back along the ground with her on top. The bike chewed through the earth, sending a wave of rubble on top of them. The booming of the engine blossomed out. They both stared its way, their faces centimeters apart.

“Did you see that? It was Bosa!”

“I was focusing on the turret on the front.” They turned and were so close their lips almost touched. “Get back on the bike.” They mounted the 62 and kicked dirt, accelerating into the excavated site. “It’ll take him a moment to turn around at that speed.”

“How’d he find us?” Yuki asked as she pulled on her helmet.

“Your father’s had the map longer than we have. Just because he’d never found the treasure doesn’t mean he didn’t have some idea of where to look.”

The peaks continued to get smaller. Yuki looked back, staring at the foliage growing smaller as they sped away. The bramble was ripped apart as Bosa’s bike tore through, sending green into the air like a lawn mower without a bag. It was bearing down on them fast.

“He’s catching up!” Yuki felt the bike gear up, their speed stall and the engine kick harder. They were trapped in the tight corridor created by the rushed demolition. Looking back, the peaks had increased in height. “We overshot our mark!”

Bosa matched his speed to the small bikes and straddled the rear tire. Fighting to retain control with one hand, he reached out the other to Yuki, inching his fingers ever closer. They desperately needed to get Yuki back. His gritted jaw, his furrowed brow, the fear in his angry irises agreed, speaking louder than his voice could. The hair on Yuki’s arm stiffened from the static electricity.

Nick made a sudden right down a small opening and Bosa rocketed past them. The brakes on The 62’s back tire dragged the dirt bike to a stop.

The monstrous bike shot up one of the cliffs and careened into the sky. The wheels folded down and the spokes pulsated. Shifting the inertia forward and up to catch itself, the bike made a smooth midair turn and quickly came about.

“Shit” echoed in Nick’s helmet. He cracked the throttle open, tipping Yuki back from the force. Startled, she let out a sharp cry to show it and frantically wrapped her arms around Nick’s waist.

Bosa’s new vantage allowed him to easily trace the bikes path. The bikes turret spun up.

“Hold on, we’re gonna flip a U-turn.”

“Why?”

“He’s not gonna fire with you here- best he can do is try to box us in.”

Nick leaned into his sharp turn and splashed the dirt out with his back tire. The hard acceleration popped the front tire a foot and a half into the air. Bosa fired at a cliff and sent an avalanche of rock down to block the path they were no longer on. Nick turned to the side so Yuki could see his face, flipped up his visor to boastfully smirk at his prescience and flicked it back down. They weaved through the area and doubled back to where they had been. The bike stopped.

“Keep searching, I’ll draw his attention.”

Yuki stepped off. “I’m the only thing keeping him from shooting you.”

Beat cracked a cool smile at the corner of his mouth, letting his lips part and reveal white teeth. “I’ll be fine,” he said coolly.

He sped off, the 62 kicking up dirt. Yuki wiped the splatter from her helmet and tried to get her bearings. She searched from peak to peak, trying to re-acclimate. The whirring engine and blue light filled the air again and Yuki pressed herself to an outcropping in time for Bosa’s vehicle to pass over head, going too fast to spot her in the darkness. From her position, she noticed a break in the peaks on the far side of the channel she was in. The turret on Bosa’s bike let out a clackackackack in the distance; he must have finally realized she wasn’t with him. A succession of bang bang bangs let her know Nick was fighting back. Rounding the corner she found where the sheared peaks had stopped and something she wouldn’t have guessed- a broken wing protruded from the side of a small cliff, its own large plasma cannon attached to the awkwardly-bent metal. The back of the vehicle was blown out. Yuki knew she was close to discovering the secret that had poisoned every facet of her life for as long as she could remember. Her heart fluttered. The distant battle got louder. The white dirt bike hugged the corner, skidding to a stop.

Nick showed his face.  It was flush with thick sweat. “You were right. That was terrible.”

Yuki pointed to the cave in the side of the formation. “There.”

Nick throttled. Yuki ran beside him and hopped back onto the seat. The bike darted up the cliff side, which now revealed itself as the last before the sheer five story drop. They teetered on the edge of the crater before breaching the back of the ship, the 62 bouncing on its shocks inside.

“What is this?” Yuki asked, looking around wide-eyed. Nick swept out the kickstand and let the motor idle. They both dismounted.

The compartment was small but open. There was cargo strewn about the metal floors and containers with broken rubber netting. Above a cracked set of monitors was a fading stenciled sign painted on the wall that read ‘ArrisCo’ and another smaller set below it with ‘ACP-MED-009’.

“The remains of a penitentiary shuttle,” Nick said, after he’d read the sign.

Yuki nudged a small emergency first aid kit with the tip of her boot. She was equal parts frustrated and exhausted and the only relief was to prove it. “There’s no treasure here!”

“Then what’s that?”

It was a nine-foot-tall medical pod installed upright in the corner. The large tube was caked with a layer of old dust except at the crack in the glass halfway up. Through it, Nick and Yuki saw a small white rock set into a gold band. It was a simple ring around a skeletal finger.

The monitors were ripped apart, an effect Nick deduced back to the hollow whirring from the turret Bosa was directing from his hover through the shuttles rear. Beat dropped and unloaded a few rounds in return that made the bike seek cover outside the line of sight.

“Is there any power to the ships weapons?” Yuki asked.

Nick peered through a porthole over the wing and saw the cannon, bent in towards the shuttle. “Not yet,” he answered. He kicked away debris on the ground and uncovered a small access hatch. Inside, he found bundles of wire running together. “Let me know when I’ve found the right one.”

Yuki pressed her face against the small window. Nick tugged on one bundle; the cannon didn’t move. “Nothing.” Nick tugged on another; it swayed slightly. “That’s it.” Nick singled out one cable and tugged. “Perfect!” Nick shot half a dozen bullets through the cabling, severing it. He set his gun on the floor and worked on peeling the line out.

“Bring the bike.”

Yuki pushed the 62 over. Nick set the gun on the floor and disconnected the lines from the engine to the wheels.

“Cross every finger you got to get him near the entrance.”

Yuki was done waiting and hoping. She grabbed Nick’s gun and ran to the opening.

“Yuki!” Nick yelled as she ran to the rear of the shuttle.

She crouched behind the wall and brought the gun up, finding reassurance in its heft, its sturdiness. Yuki was calmer than she’d thought she should be and thought it the right time to pull the trigger. The bullet pierced the windshield missed Bosa’s face, more than adequately baiting him to return the fire fifty fold. It chewed through the rusted hull, backing Yuki into the corner as it shredded, closing the distance to her head from yards to feet to inches.

“Yuki!” Nick yelled, digging his heels into metal floor, letting his strong legs pull the cable and swivel the cannon away from the ship. “Get on the bike!”

In the break in the barrage, Yuki jumped onto the 62 and cranked the throttle, carefully maintaining the engines upper RPM’s on the brink of redlining. Nick focused on the cable but it was out of give. He stepped on it to keep it taut as Bosa’s turret spun up.

Fear momentarily overtook Yuki. She over-throttled and the 62’s engine screamed so loud that she had to scream louder to get a word in. “Here it comes again!” Before the power output dropped too far, Nick jammed the ends of the two lines together. The connection angrily popped and sparked between his hands.

Bosa saw the weapon come alive, its inner chamber sliding back to align with the outer and create a high-density circuit. He tried shifting weight to reposition bike, but it was too late. Energy condensed at the generator and discharged, throwing the chamber forward and launching its payload. Bosa only had time to jump from his seat as the blast hit his vehicle and blew it from the sky. The wrenching of the shot rocked the unstable formation, breaking the weakened wing from the frame and collapsing the rock wall with it. The entire port side fell into the chasm below.

Bosa painfully smacked the grating inside the ship. Dust and debris filled the compartment, choking his eyes and lungs. He coughed violently, disoriented. A dark figure ran across the room. In his stupor, Bosa reflexively shot at it. The bullet blew out the visor, sending a spray of glass shards into the air that caught light as they spun. The figure fell.

The dust vented through the new large hole in the side of the rock and gradually cleared the air. Bosa rubbed his eyes and approached the figure. When he could see, he wished he couldn’t: Jeans, small black jacket, and leather boots. It was Yuki. He stepped forward, needing to check on her.

“Don’t. Move.” It was a stern, muffled command.

Bosa knew Nick stood behind him with his helmet on, gun trained, but he didn’t care. He stepped again. Nick shot the ceiling above his head.

Nick flipped up his visor and Bosa heard the anger in every word. “I will shoot you!”

Yuki still hadn’t moved. The realization of what he’d done slowly came to Bosa. He absent-mindedly gripped at his chest, feeling for the claw tattoo over his heart. It seemed to burrow deeper under his skin. Bosa stumbled away from her body and to the gaping opening.

From the moment he’d laid eyes on this bulky man in the night club, Nick had recognized his loud, cocksure bravado as the act that it was. That, Beat could deal with. Bosa’s silence was the first time he’d concerned Nick.

“SAY SOMETHING!!”

Bosa stopped at the edge of the mangled shuttle and stared down into the darkness below. “He’s killed people’s families for less.” He stepped off and disappeared headfirst into the depths below. Nick stared in disbelief. The sound of shuffling came from behind.

Yuki stood stiffly and lifted the helmet from her head. A handful of glass fragments fell to the floor. Tiny globs of blood clung to the small cuts around her eyes. Nick rushed to her and held her cheeks in his hands, blowing on her face to brush the flecks from her eyelids. He examined it. “Open,” he said. Yuki opened her eyes. “Look up.” Yuki looked up. “Look right.” She did. “Look left.” This time, her expression changed as her view did. Nick turned in their direction. The lid on the medical pod had popped from the shock and a stale, decayed smell poured out and along the shuttle floor.

Nick let go of her face to take her hand. Together, they stepped closer and looked inside.

*

The sun was setting on the fifth day. It had been windy and a dozen cherry blossoms found their way inside Ueda’s house. Ueda had the volume up on the telenet receiver high so he could listen to Ellie Fogarty’s report while he blended a bowl at the sink.

“BBLtech stock rose sharply this morning after the recent mayoral election on the company’s mid-Atlantic prefab cluster, Chrome Reef,” Fogarty said from behind her desk. “Popular CEO Stieg Edelkopf held an interview on site.”

The video changed to the smiling, tanned face of Edelkopf under the bright sun, a microphone being held to his face by a reporter offscreen. “This once again shows our commitment to being consumer-centric. Our configurable mobile housing units allow people to form self-governing communities around the globe. We believe that if you provide the means, individuals will make the best choices for themselves and their families.”

The tones of ‘Rumble’ faded into the living room as Ariel wandered absent-mindedly in, her chest and arms completely bandaged. The only visible tattoo was the last: the small steel-colored gear at the base of her neck, placed to turn the larger two on her shoulder blades. Drawn to the sound coming from the monitor, she looked into the screen and the pictures of Edelkopf, the dozens of interconnected platforms floating on top of the waves and the buildings submerged below the surface, but she didn’t process any of it.

Ueda noticed her. “Ready to finish up?”

Ariel didn’t answer, lost in thought.

“Ariel,” he said firmer. Her trance broke and she blinked, her eyes showing her climb from the depths of her mind. “Everything all right?”

Ariel picked up one of the blossoms and twirled it around in her pinched fingertips. “We’re almost done here and I realize I don’t know how long it’ll be before I come back.” She put it to her nose and breathed in, her eyes closed to focus on the sweet smell filling her lungs. She exhaled. “I just saw Nick’s last message. It was sent the day before yesterday.”

“I’m sure he’s all right.”

“I’m sure he is too.”

“That’s not what’s on your mind.”

“No,” she said, letting the petal fall. “The message included a picture…a picture of a map.”

Ueda stopped stirring. “What do you want to ask?”

“Maybe I know everything I need to.”

“Maybe you do.”

‘Rumble’ hung between them.

“When we return, I sit down with The Spine Kicker’s front man Lance Shrapnel to talk about success, inspiration and music. Stay with us.”

“Sorry Ellie,” Ariel said, crossing the room to turn off the monitor.

She got half way across when the front door was violently kicked in. Two men with rifles breached, their muzzles scanning the room. Ariel reacted quickly, diving for safety behind the couch. Ueda dropped the bowl in the sink at the ruckus but Ariel put her hand out to stop him from moving.

Ariel could hear the men’s steps bringing them closer. She needed a plan and ran through scenarios in her head, quickly realizing they all ended the same way. She didn’t know who her opponents were, but fighting back was futile. This would need patience and subtlety.

Then her plugs strobed and the guitars of ‘The Piston Falcons’ came over her speakers, its notes merging with hers.

Ariel sprang over the couch and drop kicked the furthest intruder square in the chest, knocking him five feet back. She quickly recovered and pushed off her toes, reached up to the back of the front man’s head, lifted him from the ground and slammed him on his face. She mercilessly elbowed the back of his head and stomped on his knee, dislocating it from its socket. Ariel manhandled the thug into a headlock.

The second intruder stopped wheezing long enough to reclaim his ground. He picked up his rifle and trained it on Ariel’s blonde head, knowing that his bullets would pierce her shield. A pair of hands grabbed his clothes, used his weight to spin him around and throw him. He pulled the trigger, sending a circle of bullets over everyone’s head as he flew at Ariel’s excited face. She braced for the impact, pulled her captive back and thrust him forward. The two men’s noggins collided like two bowling balls with billiard balls inside, their individual notes overlapping into a musical chord.

“You’ve had a run of chart-topping hits,” came Ellie Fogarty’s voice “but your song ‘Prism’ has been called a masterpiece.” Ellie was sitting in a studio across from a smarmy looking guy with frosted blonde hair. A caption below indicated ‘Lance Shrapnel’. “What inspired it?”

“Sorry Ueda,” Ariel said. Ueda was puzzled until Ariel threw her captive into the monitor as Shrapnel began to answer.

Nick Beat looked at the destroyed screen. “You read my mind.” He hooked the rifle under his foot and kicked it into the air. Ariel snatched it in flight.

Ariel felt a presence behind her. Instinctively, she spun around and led with the butt of the rifle. She wasn’t expecting a pretty young woman with a dozen small cuts across her eye sockets, and from the expression on her face, the woman wasn’t expecting to be hit. Knowing Ariel as he did, Nick stopped the arm from swinging through.

He made introductions. “Ariel this is Yuki; Yuki, Ariel.”

“Hello,” Ariel said sizing her up.

“Hi,” Yuki replied.

Semi-automatic gunfire from outside made the three duck below the couch.

“I’d ask what I missed around here,” Nick said, looking over Ariel’s arms, “but I think I can work back from the climax of that drama.” It occurred to Nick that that might have been the most cogent thing he’d ever said.

“You lead these guys here?!”

“What?” Nick asked. “They got here first!” Ariel’s glare told Nick he’d better make sure. He pulled one of the thugs to him and lifted his shirt up. The clan’s claw tattoo was there on his chest. “Ok, look…” Nick continued. “They got here first! We’ve been on the road since last night!”

“And my bike?” A bullet hitting the couch changed the subject and popped a tuft of fabric into the air. Ariel winced. “Since we’re getting shot at, I assume you found the treasure.”

Nick pulled out the small rusted wedding ring from his trouser pocket and flipped it to her. She looked at the white stone inset.

“What the hell is this?”

I’d forgotten how invigorating this is.” It was a growl that hung in the air.

Nick said “Oh shit.”

Ariel asked “Who the hell is that?”

Yuki identified “My father.”

Ueda ground his teeth.

The intensity of the hunt.”

“This is going to be bad,” Yuki said.

“I’ve seen bad.” Nick said.

“This’ll be worse. You’ll wish you were shot in the Atlantic.”

Ariel’s features contorted. “You told her about that?” She looked to Yuki. “Let me guess, he forgot to mention that I called the authorities and told them where I’d left him?” Ariel looked away as Yuki was fully grasping what that meant and in time to see two of the three men break away. “We can’t get pinned here,” she said to Nick. “We need to get out, keep the situation fluid, them on their toes and away from these two.” She racked a bullet into the chamber. “Ueda.” She handed him the ring. “Watch the girl.”

“What are you going to do?”

She pressed the back of her left ear. ‘Rumble’ changed to ‘Battery Charge’.

“Jam out.”

Nick Beat happily slapped a new magazine into his pistol. “I missed you.”

And as soon as I heard she’d gone missing, I knew where her scent would end.”

To ‘The Piston Falcons Battery Charge’, Ariel popped up, clutching the rifle to her shoulder. Sighting down the barrel, she shot a series of short bursts of fire, letting off to reset from the muzzle climb. Brap, brap. When the invaders retreated, Nick swung around the end of the couch and sprinted. Having spent years partnered with Beat, Ariel knew he was likely to cause more damage to Ueda’s house than their assailants; him clipping the rug a few feet out helped solidify the fear.

It was loud in the small house. Yuki thought she saw one of the unconscious thugs stir but the staccato tune playing from Beat’s rifle interrupted her investigation.

Ariel moved up. As she got to Nick she shared her thoughts: “Try to avoid being you and don’t’ break any-” She would have finished her thought, but she clipped the already upturned rug and in turn yanked on the coffee table leg and knocked a vase with flowers off, breaking the glass and soaking the rug with dirty water. She turned sheepishly. “Sorry Ueda.”

Ueda shrugged an attempt to play it off.

Nick was giggling like a tickled baby before he stopped shooting and ducked down, the quiet simply revealed it. Ariel looked at him irritably as return fire tore through the door back at them. The bullets embedded into the furniture inches from Nick’s noggin’, but he was laughing too hard to notice. Failing to find something heavy, Ariel ejected a cartridge from the barrel of her weapon and threw it at Nick, hitting him in the chest.

“Whoa there, you’ll need that to break one of Ueda’s priceless vases!”

The gunfire stopped. Ariel popped up and sent a barrage back outside, her anger showing in the long stream of bullets. Nick ran.

“Hey, remember that time you shattered an heirloom in the middle of telling me not to brea-” But he knocked a picture frame off the wall when he slid against it. His features sank. “Sorry Ueda.”

Ueda clenched his fist into a tight ball and nodded tersely.

Yuki heard a noise from behind and discovered the man she’d forgotten about on the floor rushing her…and run in a curved line right into the table, apparently having suffered a mild concussion. His embarrassment was short lived, as Ueda, unable to control himself for a multitude of reasons but largely because of the destruction to his belongings, lifted him into the air and threw him on the wooden tabletop, splitting it and splaying the legs outward. The next measure of the combat theme drew her back as Ariel dove into the hallway as the front door finally fell from its hinges.

Ariel got to her room and pulled on her black and white All-Stars high tops, letting the laces dangle untied. Because the walls were muffling the gunfight on one side, it was easy to notice the forceful whir through the window on the other. Ariel crept to the edge of the frame. What she saw confused her- a bright, shining moon rising up the cliff side. The image reflected off the sleek chrome surface as a flyer ascended and settled flush with the courtyard. They were flanked, despite their efforts. The side hatch quietly opened and a large silhouette stepped off its unfolded door.

Ariel screamed “Niiiiiiiiiick!”

Nick Beat realized they’d been played and frantically made his way to them, hoping to correct it.

The flood lights flared, casting the front of the silhouette in darkness. Its right arm swept up. There was a burst of light and a bang. The bullet tore through Nick’s leg. He buckled and tumbled awkwardly along the hardwood floor.

The figure stopped in front of Ueda and Yuki, the contours of his face highlighted by fireplace’s glow.

I owe you everything I am, Takumi Ueda.”

Even after all these years, hearing that voice say his name made Ueda’s heart skip.

One of the remaining men threw Nick down near the others.

The drums rose, moved faster and faster and faster. And right before they sounded like they would lose control from the speed, they cut.

Ariel got ready to move and checked Nick, but Beat was shaking his head. She reined in her body’s desire to move as the guitars and drums exploded back into action, twirling around each other.

The Beast leaned in towards Ueda, the light exposing his face. Hot breath passed through chipped teeth, “After all these years, Takumi, what do you think of your work?

A row of painted fangs ran along his forehead from ear to ear and another cut below his lip while two blood red eyes at the top of his bald skull stared insanely up at the sky. The composition gave the impression of a man half-swallowed by an animal, observing the world through its saliva-dripping teeth. His features were hard, the stern lip and hateful brow were so severe that they made the maw seem tight, proving that the animal was winning.

You’ve gotten old. But I guess eighteen years is a long time.”

The Beast saw the ring in Ueda’s hand.

Yuki, hand that to me.”

Obediently, Yuki took the ring from Ueda and placed it on The Beast’s upturned palm. As he stared at the white rock, The Beast’s features seemed to soften and open, as if The Man was crawling out from the throat.

“They don’t tell you how many die the first year,” The Man recalled solemnly. “To survive, you need to kill your humanity. I wouldn’t have made it without-” he stopped himself. “How was she?”

“Dead. We buried her,” Yuki answered.

The Beast looked to Ueda. “How does that make you feel? To discover what my greatest treasure was?” Ueda stood tall. It made The Beast frown. “I wish you’d talk, Takumi. I so loved the conversations we used to have.”

One of the Beast’s thugs grabbed Ueda’s hand and twisted his wrist, leveraging the horishi painfully to his knees. The Beast looked at his man, slid the lock back and shot him in the head. The body collapsed lifelessly and blood pooled from the wound. Yuki and Nick exchanged nervous glances.

“No one touches him!” he yelled at the others, grabbing Ueda’s hand to inspect it. “You all right?” he asked, rubbing the muscles. “You’re going to need this. You’ll be sharpening my fangs tonight, won’t you?” He let go of Ueda’s hands and moved to the pots of ink, looking them over. “What color should I use?” he asked, perusing his choices of blue, red and green. He picked up a fourth, nearly empty container. “You need more black.”

He took the blue and the remainder of the black and scraped both into a pot. He used Ueda’s hari needle to mix the contents. The blue turned dark. “It’ll blend easier with heat, right?” He set the pot in the fireplace, the flames crawling up the sides. He picked up the jar with the green ink. “Do you know what it’s like? To travel hundreds of thousands of miles with the love of your life sick in the back only to stare down a dozen police cruisers, their sirens flashing into the vacuum?” He poured the green into the red and stirred. “Their cannons sliced through the hull. The last time I saw her, the cargo section was disintegrating.” The mix turned brown. “Thank you for finding her.”

“Who was she?” Yuki asked.

The Beast poured the brown into the dark blue, lost in thought. The light bubbling ceased with the addition. The colors merged as he stirred.

“My wife.”

Yuki was stunned. “My mother?

Ueda broke. “NOOOO!” he bellowed. The objection bounced through the house and back onto itself.

The Man stopped stirring and said “There you are Takumi,” as if greeting an old friend for lunch. “This place hasn’t changed from the last time I was here. Do you remember what I told you that night?”

“I do.”

“Tell me,” he hissed, “so I know you know. Tell me so I know you know you willingly defied me.”

“You gave me a choice.  If I let you take my daughter, she would be fed, clothed and taken care of.”

“And if you had refused?”

“She would have died right then.”

“Then why do this now?”

“Because her mother, who cared for her all her life, died. Because her father needs to protect her now.”

Yuki was taken back. “Makoto?” she said, her lips trembling. “She was my mother?”  She looked at Ueda. “You’re my…?”

“I remember the pain as your needles worked into my face,” The Man reminisced. “I’m sure if I didn’t have the gag, the pain would have been worse. But maybe if I didn’t have it, you would have heard my pleas. Your father’s a very strong man, Yuki. Close your eyes and try to remember your pain. Now imagine the will it required him to hold you down and put his sticks to your back. Imagine what it took to endure his baby girl’s screams to save her life. I respect that. I’ve always wondered if he cried.” He looked at Ueda. “Did you?”

“To this day. But it was a choice I would make again. I wouldn’t let you kill her like you killed the others’ children. You wanted the map, you were going to have to wait until it grew to scale.”

 “So what do you think, Takumi? What do you think about what you’ve done?”

“I think being a beast is what put you in jail. I just gave your prey fair warning.”

“And look at the power it gave me over them. To think, my parents had such high hopes for me.”

When he was young, Nick watched a cat play with a mouse. The cat knocked the mouse around with its paws and grabbed it in its teeth when it tried to run away. Five minutes later, it ate it, more out of boredom than hunger. Nick realized that’s what was happening here and suspected Ueda had recognized it from the beginning.

The pot of dark ink boiled on the fire. The Man smirked at it. Soundlessly, the flyer swooped back down and maintained a hover. Its doors unfolded.

“And here we are again. I escaped from the moon and the convoy that tried to take me back. Everything that kept me a man is dead.” The Beast’s features hardened again as if the jaws were forcing themselves back down. Ueda thought he saw the man’s throat swallow, but he couldn’t be sure. “It’s time to say goodbye Takumi.

Yuki stepped between him and the others and spread her arms out defiantly.

“I won’t let you hurt them!”

The Beast grabbed the underside of the searing metal and pulled the bucket back. “Why do I need you anymore?” he snarled. Yuki flushed, her pupils pulled back. The Beast chucked the contents.

The scalding hot ink flew through the air. Before she could act, something pulled her away. Powerful arms wrapped around her and clutched her to a massive chest. In the embrace, she got a whiff of something that took her back. It brought memories she’d not thought of since she was a child: of a man, a woman and a tree with pink flowers. The memory faded but the tree remained. It stood strong and beautiful in the courtyard.

Yuki was brought back by the screams.

Ueda painfully tore his melting shirt off. Yuki saw two words tattooed in that same pink of her memory run down his chest. ‘Makoto’ on the right, ‘Yuki’ on the left.

It was time. Nick braced himself for Ariel’s attack.

But it didn’t come.

Instead, his plug pulsated and the harps of Maelstrom’s Lullaby came over the speaker. Nick Beat went pale and broke into a cold sweat.

Another gunshot rang out. Shocked, The Beast’s hands went to his stomach. They found an expanding damp red spot on his shirt. From the flyers open door, Ariel vaulted out.

Nick threw himself against his guards like a bag of concrete. “You’ll want to stay clear of this.”

Ariel jumped on The Beast’s back and pushed him to the floor. She rolled him over so she could see into his eyes between the teeth. The Beast saw his face in her rage-filled eyes. His intestines knotted up.

“You say there’s a man in here?” she asked the space. “Let me fucking dig him out!” She jabbed her nails into the Beast’s face and brought their tips together. The Beast howled into the night. He could hear the pleasant song coming from the speakers in her ears. It calmed him through the pain, but apparently its effects gave her no comfort. Taking him by the shoe, Ariel dragged The Beast through the house and along the stones outside. She threw him into the cab of the flyer and took the rifle slung around her back. Ariel unloaded round after round into the engine until the clip went dry and the thrusters billowed smoke. The sleek flyer pitifully fought to maintain its altitude. It didn’t last five seconds.

In her frenzy, Ariel tried to climb through the doors. Her footing gave way at the cliff side. Nick grabbed her and pulled her back to safety. She turned on him and decked him in the face but Nicks hold didn’t lessen.

Ueda and Yuki ran to the edge and watched the ship careen to the forest below. It hit the ground in an explosion of fire and searing metal.

Ariel was relentless, her fingers swiping at Beat. Nick reached far back and put all his strength into his fist and punched her in the stomach. The rage released like steam after a turned valve. He clutched her head to his chest and whispered “I gotcha baby” into her ear. Ariel let go and her world went dark…

…until slowly her small room materialized around her. Flashing red and blue lights filled the space above, their shadows they cast changing as the sources moved. Two police cruisers flew away and grew smaller in her window. Ariel sat up on the mat and rubbed her pounding head. There was a glass of water ready beside her. She downed it quickly.

“Looks like Ueda still had friends from his work with the police.” Nick was sitting in a chair in the corner. “They didn’t give us much trouble.” Ariel could see his thigh wrapped in bandages. “They were more interested in identifying the body in the crash. They carted his crew off- some to jail, some to the morgue.”

There was a bruise on Nick’s cheek.

“Did I do that?”

“No,” he lied and changed the subject. “Ueda wants to see you.”

Ariel left Nick and the room. Ueda’s door was cracked part of the way open. Through the opening, Ueda removed a small urn from the parcel he’d received days before. He handed it to Yuki, her face streaked with tears. Ueda brushed a hair from her face. Through his shirt, Ariel could see bandages wrapped around his chest, presumably to protect the burns on his back.

The fire was dying in the living room. Ariel threw another log and stoked the embers. The sound of a chair being pulled across the floor drew her attention. Ueda straightened out the mat.

“We have a job to finish,” he said pointedly.

“Why aren’t you with Yuki?”

“I told her this was important,” as he walked into the kitchen.

“The sumi’s gone.”

Ueda pulled the pot he’d earlier mixed from the sink. “There’s some left.”

Ariel removed her shirt and laid on her stomach. “You should be with your daughter, Ueda, not finishing my tattoos.”

Ueda dropped down beside her and dipped his hari needle into the bottom of the bowl. “All these years and you still don’t understand. These aren’t tattoos, they’re chains.” Gently, he brushed a loose strand of hair away from her face. “There’s a demon inside you. It must never be set free.” He began sewing the ink into her skin.

Ariel turned into the pillow, her tears collected in the crease.

The scent of cherry blossom carried to her nose, but there was no wind.

*

Ariel awoke to the breeze coming through the window.  Nick’s arm was on the contour of her hip, his breath blowing loose strands on her head. She slipped from under the covers.  Her bandages held tight from her breast bone up so she slid into her pants, foregoing a shirt.

The living room was quiet, the fireplace cold.  The door to Ueda’s room was open and when she peeked inside, discovered it empty, the parcel gone. Stepping out into the terrace, she found a white piece of paper folded into an envelope tacked to the trunk.  Unfolding it, Ariel retrieved a brass key.

“Where’s Ueda and Yuki?” Nick asked from the doorway behind her.

“They’re gone.”

Nick wrapped his arms around her from behind. “What’s the key to?”

“The front door.”

“Why would he leave that?”

Ariel closed her fingers around the key. “He doesn’t need it anymore.”

A shuttle rose on the coast, the two standing there for a moment following its ascent. Nick kissed the back of her neck and returned to the living room.  As he went to close the door, a single cherry blossom fell from the trees lowest branch.  He traced it down but lost it when it passed into the identical color of the ink showing on Ariel’s back where the bandages were sagging.  He took note of the new, beautiful light pink of the gear at the base of her neck.

For a second, it looked like it was spinning.

The End.

© Dane Thomsen 2014

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