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Yeung-Sung broke into the Joint Wick like a cutting breeze, with Woo-Yi following closely behind. He had to kick the door open -his hands were still sore- and the impact of its swing cracked a corner of the nearest window.

It was barely evening. Yet already the pub had long been filled by its regulars. Spread about in groups of two and three -at the bar; by the booth; the round table at the front- they all turned from their Airgead screens like a synchronised alarm.

Well…they’ve been here a while, Yeung-Sung judged from the pint glasses that gathered at the edges of tables like taken chess pieces. He had to cough; the air was so stifling. Then, puffing up his chest he headed through, letting everyone take a good look at him -at his face and throbbing, bandaged limbs- feeling like he held a warm billow of breath and when he announced himself the Wick regulars would be lit up and disturbed as if they were a bed of dormant coals.

“I am back.”

“That’s great. Shut the door, ya bastard, it be freezing,” shouted Steph, cringing as he rubbed his hairy arms up and down.

Wil laughed, sitting up beside him. “Look who it is; the ghost of colonies past.”

“I knew this was coming,” said Shirley as Yeung-Sung strode past him towards the far side of the Wick.

“Yeung-Sung, I’ve never –“, Woo-Yi said.

He continued on at a brisk pace leaving Woo-Yi protesting at the entrance. She’ll be fine. Her and the others’ comments fell out of his ear canals before he could’ve even acknowledged them. The fireplace had been roused, but he had yet to spark it off. Approaching the last booth, Yeung-Sung saw the tail of a white coat peering out.

Another loud snap struck the Wick as Woo-Yi somehow managed to close a door twice her size.

Yeung-Sung swallowed.

Aisling twisted her head out over her shoulder at the sudden noise, meeting. Waking, she tried to stand, but knocked aside a glass that splattered all over her lab coat. That got her up.

“Shit.”

She wrung her coat out, beat it and rubbed it until finally letting the damp thing fall at her heels. “Oh, it’s you.”

Yes, it’s me.” Yeung-Sung bit his tongue, sorting out how to respond her.

“I’m surprised you recognise me. Your boss did a bang-up job,” he said, modelling his swollen face, “Don’t you think?”

Aisling continued to buffet the alcohol form her coattails; Grabbing it with both hands she slapped it against her leg, making a sound like stretching a bedsheet. She mouthed more nonchalant curses too, but Yeung-Sung couldn’t hear them over the hrrrup sound of cotton rippling through the air.

Yeung-Sung clenched his teeth. Grabbing her by the lapels of her prized coat he forced her to face him and asked,

“You’re fine with this? What he did to me?”

Covering her mouth, she wheezed in his hold. With a sulking aside she meandered her eyes up to meet him.

Even though he was holding her -close enough to smell the smoke off her fingers- it was Yeung-Sung who was tense, the one who was scared and nervous. He felt like part of the background furniture; He was a shelf. And Aisling looked past him with this unenthused stare, trying to decide which of two identical tea brands to buy.

His grip trembling, Aisling pried him off. “Let go.”

Yeung-Sung lowered both hands to his sides, apologising. Aisling opened her mouth and it looked as if she would explain herself. Instead, she drifted her gaze behind him.

“I need a drink, first of all.” She brushed past him effortlessly. “You want to get it?” she asked, “Or are you still broke?”

Yeung-Sung turned after her, ready to start a real argument, when he noticed that all of the regulars (plus Woo-Yi) had all been watching them the whole time. Feeling all the eyes focused on him, he felt shame burn up his cheeks. The embarrassment sparked and crackled and the entire Wick erupted in a wall if laughter, throwing up their heads to spit out gouts of it.

His aches and pains subsided beneath this sudden shame. Looking around to see if any of them had one ounce of sympathy for him and saw Woo-Yi skirt behind the crowd, staying close to the entrance with her shoulders drawn close. Other than that, only Shirley shrugged at him and waved at Yeung-Sung to come over with a shake of his head that said, “What can I do?”

“Man, I didn’t believe it when I heard, “Mamba was saying a she looked Yeung-Sung over, “But he really went for it.”

Yeung-Sung broke free from her. “I’m sorry that I don’t find it as funny as you do.”

He sat amongst them, gathered up all in one booth like last time, still feeling awkward about his outburst earlier. Martin had some choice words to say about the way he manhandled a woman and Mamba and Anita -who had walked in shortly after- were busy surveying his injuries with the utmost fascination. Swilling drink at breakneck speeds, Fenrick and Hans once again remained at the bar. On occasion, Yeung-Sung would catch them consulting with each other, giving him a not-so-sly look and nodding to themselves. Behind them, Darnes stood guard over the tavern, drying the same glass for the past twenty minutes. Somehow it hadn’t been crushed in his vice grip. Aisling had quietly excused herself after buying Yeung-Sung several drinks up front. Supposing that was her to say sorry, he thought back to what she told him:

“Do you think I have any authority in here? You think I come into this dump, -no offense, Darnes- to spy on you all? To torment you?

I’m just an artist…or I used to be, at least. Jordan gave me a chance to do the one thing that has kept me sane, in turn kept me alive the past few years.

We actually, -we go back a while; He was always odd. Always saw the world differently, but this?

I don’t know how many drinks I’ll need to understand all this. I suspect a lot…and this is only the first step. This is an experiment; The prototype.

Oh, great, now I’m crying. Just leave me be.

Here, drink this…try not to do anything, umm, stupid.

Wait it out like the rest of us.”

“You’ve missed out on quite a lot,” Wil said, flicking his phone out. “I hope you’ve found your mastery because you’ll need it; the factions are leaps ahead of us.

Yeung-Sung perked up. “The factions. You’ve mentioned them before -and they have tried to recruit me- but what are they? Are they all just as obsessed with Jordan? Is that why no one cares?”

“Whoa, slow down there, champ, “Wil said, chuckling, “Who do you want to hear about?”

Yeung-Sung frowned at him. Is it not obvious? “I need to know who to look out for on the streets.”

He almost pounded down on the table, but stopped just short. He pushed the few empty pints Aisling had bought him aside. “Just tell me, Wil.”

He caught Woo-Yi glancing over at him from his right, remaining quiet. Tense and trembling, he couldn’t move his arm so kept it hovering, spastic thing above the wood-grained patterns of the table. Shirley and Mamba leaned both cupped a gentle hand over and placed him down.

“You don’t have to worry,” Shirley reassured him.

“This won’t happen again,” Mamba finished. She gave him a sympathetic nod, her baggy eyes looking more tender than ever. Shirley nodded too, so quickly that it displaced his hair, which he curled back over and brought forth a tight, toothy smile.

How can I trust what you say?

On Yeung-Sung’s right, Wil shrugged, which did not lend much credence to Shirley’s words. Then, feeling the table rattle, Wil yelped up in pain. Sliding his feet up to the rim of his seat, he massaged them while looking sternly over to the other side of the booth. A second later, he transferred his mischievous face to one of forced friendliness. Yeung-Sung wanted it to be a genuine reaction, but as he took a look around the bar and saw the same faded smile, he quickly grew sick of it. I’d prefer if they went back to ignoring me.

Fenrick sat barside on a high-stool. Yeung-Sung watched him swallow another pint in a dozen seconds. His mouth was hidden by the yellow sloshy liquid, yet as it emptied, Yeung-Sung made out his unconcerned face through the moistened glass. Like a stump.

How can I get these people to help me overrule Jordan? They can’t override their laziness to not get up.

A shattering crack split through the Wick, stealing his attention. A rain of glass uprooted Fenrick from his seat.

“AH, bollocks,” came Darnes’s voice from behind the bar.

Anita rushed over immediately, brush in hand. “I’ve got it Darnes. Go check your hand.”

Despite towering over her, she shooed Darnes out of from behind the bar as he gave her a stunned nod.

Yeung-Sung instantly became the only one still sitting at the booth. The others -some with curiosity, some with a mind to help- flocked to the barside. Anita had to keep them at bay with the stick of her brush so none of them wouldn’t accidently step on the scattered glass. As they were demanding to be let through, Darnes burrowed his way out into the main area, his left hand covered in a slowly bloodying rag. He dragged a stool as he shouldered between the lot of them and stuck it down beside the booth. It crunched under him when he sat. He huffed through his nose, settling. Him and Yeung-Sung shared a look of understanding. Anita brushed the floor so fiercely that it sounded as though she was scratching it up in the process. Spewing curses and shaking her ponytail as she worked, the group decided to leave her to it and retreated back to the booth.

Yeung-Sung had forgotten the sheer bulk of a man that was Darnes before -but perhaps that was because of the meds. He just crushed a glass in his hand. Accidentally. Sliding some drinks aside to make room, Darnes laid out the rag over the table on the booth, holding his fist over it. Then, without the slightest change in his expression began to pick out spikes of glass form his hands.

“So, you want to know about the factions, Yeung-Sung?”

Yeung-Sung pulled his eyes away from the bleeding mess. “What?”

Wil clapped Darnes over the shoulder. “It’s all right, we’ll tell him.”

“No,” Darnes stated. Wil backed his hands away. “You’ll only tell him about efficiency. Useless.”

He flung a look towards Martin, Mamba and Shirley, checking if there were any other objections before he continued.

“You two, “he pointed, “Are too invested in infidelity to paint a clear picture of what’s going on.”

His finger lingered over Woo-Yi too for a moment. Circling away, he continued,

“Shirley, Steph… you’ve barely made an attempt at joining a faction.

As I see it, I’m the only one with the experience necessary to teach you this properly.”

Checking his handiwork, he flexed his hand a few times over the rag. Yeung-Sung expected someone to protest this -Wil at least. Yet they all quietly bowed, brushing off the way Darnes had denounced them as one would a fallen leaf.

You are the one who is going to advise me? And it was you who was the only one at my bedside.

Still, can I trust you? Can I believe in you?

Watching Darnes’s hand pumping out redness, Yeung-Sung squeezed his own palm, thumbing the centre of it in a circle. Then, as the last few crunches of glass faded and were swept away Anita chimed in, leaning her slender body against the broom’s handle like a twin.

“I can tell him everything he needs to know about the Player’s Market.”

“And I’m sure you will, dear, but theirs is not the only viewpoint. And besides, there is more between the factions than any of you realize.” He parcelled the unsheathed bits of glass within the rag, pinching the top to lift it up.

“Here, Anita. That’s all of it,” Darnes said, handing her the rag. With a cute grunt, she snatched it away, returning to the bar. He then tried flicking open the latch at the handle of the first aid box one-handed. On the third try, he got it. When he tried to unscrew the top of a small antiseptic bottle, Mamba rushed to do it for him. Darnes frowned at her for a moment, his hands twice as thick as hers, but he accepted with a grateful nod.

“We’re not fools, or have you been hiding something from us, Darnes?” Mamba asked, pulling the barkeep’s arm forward by the wrist and pulling up his sleeve. “Aren’t we in this together?”

Darnes kept a wide-eyed look glued on Mamba’s fingers a she worked. “I’m saying the rumours are true. They’re back.”

Shirley coughed into his glass. “I’m sorry,” he said. wiping his mouth, “Who’s back?”

“Of course, they are.” Mamba was looking down too, focused on administering to Darnes as she spoke. “It’s the beginning of a new reset. There’s so much information to be found and sold. I’m sure the Web is having a field day.”

Wil and Von Martin leaned closer on their elbows, listening.

Mamba put down the bottle and dug into the green case, finding bandages. She applied them with strained, but smooth movements over his branch-like fingers, flowing from one side to the other.

“Not just them. The ‘Finers’ are gearing up. They’ll attempt the same thing again,” Darnes said.

To Yeung-Sung, he added, “That’s the business owners’ faction. Anything they’re involved in will also be attributed to you.”

“No doubt they’ve asked already.” His expression hardened. “Listen to me, if you want to join them, think carefully. Nobody else will accept you after that, and they are fond of kicking people out in the first place.”

“Hold still,” Mamba said.

Darnes winced as she squeezed his arm until he settled down. Wil and Von Martin chuckled between themselves.

“Gah! Sorry -But that’s not all.” The colour changed in Darnes’s face and he suddenly reminded Yeung-Sung of the experience right before he stabbed him. “After what happened to you there will be motions by the Debaters to do something. For or against you, I don’t know. Despite what your experience, there is a system of law here; A police force also.”

“Supposed to be, anyway,” Wil grumbled.

“Debaters?” Yeung-Sung asked. “I don’t remember seeing them in my inbox.

Von Martin kicked back a laugh. “Ahh, yes! That is our nickname for ND; The Neo-Democritans.”

“Because that’s all they do,” agreed Mamba, sighing deep as she finished the wrapping. “There.”

Showing off the job to the others, Darnes sniffed a laugh at Yeung-Sung, comparing injuries.

It’s not nearly the same. But you’ve done more than the others at least.

“Anyway, while all the above factions -including Anita’s- are holding meetings and trying to allocate their resources, there are others who act in opposition. Trying to cause chaos in the colony. I’d say they will be spreading panic based on your attack. The Duners…”

Mamba cut him off with a swipe of her hand. “Don’t start.”

“But they’re…all gone, aren’t they?” Shirley asked. “After that last mishap?”

The Web; Finers; Duners; Debaters; Player’s Market; The Champions -the one Wil showed me, but I suppose they’re less political. And there’s likely more I haven’t hear about yet.

Yeung-Sung rubbed his forehead and groaned. “That’s a lot of different factions for a colony of only a thousand people.”

“Can you…” he began, then hesitated.

“Can you just tell me which one is the biggest? Or most powerful? If I ally with them, I would have the best chance.”

Wil rounded on him. “To get revenge, you mean? Is that what this is about?”

Crossing his arms, he scowled. “Honestly, I’m offended, Pak. We’re not much, I get it. But we’re our own group, or own -sort of- faction.” He snapped his fingers. “You know what, we’re better than that; Here, we are a family. And I was really hoping you’d join us. You know, after we welcomed you in an’ all.”

“I didn’t mean it like that.”

“So- So you’re gonna just, what? Step in, learn what we know and kick us out of your life?” Wil raised his arms in surrender. “Wow, just wow!”

Von Martin patted him on the back. “Wil, look at the little one; He doesn’t mean it in that way.”

“Piss off, Martin.”

Will hopped across the end of the couch. He was pointing a finger directly between Yeung-Sung’s lungs when Woo-Yi slipped in from behind and sucker-punched him, downing him like cut grass.

Yeung-Sung sat, along with the rest of the room, in disbelief.

“Woo-Yi,” he gasped in Korean, “What…. was that?”

Eyes down and away, she rubbed her fist. “You’re my boss. He was going to hurt you, and you’re injured, “she rambled, slowly raising her head.

The booth was all looking at Yeung-Sung now. He held his arms out aloft and shrugged.

Am I supposed to take responsibility for this?

Woo-Yi rubbed her knuckles harder, curling in her shoulders. “I don’t know…”

He had an urge to scold her, but before he could, Wil lashed out from beneath,

“You piece of shit!”

He pulled Yeung-Sung down, slamming his knees into him like boulders through a frozen lake. He then grabbed his throat and Yeung-Sung tried to block the punch that would follow. Instead of a hard impact, however, Wil had latched on to the bandages of the one of the arms he was blocking with in order to wrestle it away. Yeung-Sung’s crossed ‘X’ of hands fell aside like curtains.

“You’re not denying it, are you?” Wil yelled.

“I’m not, but please understand—”

Before, the regulars of the Joint Wick didn’t get involved. It probably seemed to them like a spat between friends. That is, until, Yeung-Sung roared out with pain as Wil forced his unhealed tendons to tense and grind together by his fingers and nails.

“Wil! Stop!”

“You’ve gone too far, laddie,” Steph said, dragging Wil away, holding him in a full nelson.

“Fuck you,” came the reply.

The pub buzzed with the chaos of all the regulars taking sides: Shirley came first, pulling Yeung-Sung away from the booth to comfort him; Fenrick maintained a position between Steph and Wil to stop a secondary fight from breaking out, and Anita and Mamba confronted Woo-Yi over her action. Yet all this energy was fleeting. Stomping on the floor as he cradled his bandaged hand over his heart, Darnes silenced the lot of them. Even the pain inched back. Everything Yeung-Sung experienced dulled in his presence. So, he bowed.

He didn’t even need to say anything.

Now that he could be heard again, he began to pace around Yeung-Sung. “Whatever Wil might say about your motives, you’re fiercely different from the man we met several days ago.” He looked back at the regulars. “Wouldn’t you say?”

Of course. Yeung-Sung realised that he had backed into the edge of the small round table and straightened himself. Or rather, he tried to constrict his pained arms into a pose other than submission.

“But a lot has happened in those few days.” Darnes stopped to stare at Yeung-Sung’s wounds and a question hammered through his eyes as he said, “What will you do about it?”

The regulars were all watching Darnes as he talked. But, as soon as he cast his question, they levelled their eyes onto Yeung-Sung. It was unnerving, but that did not get in the way of his answer, one he had since he watched Jordan leave him for dead in the night.

“I’m going to destroy Jordan. I’m going to fuck up this colony beyond repair, beyond salvage and definitely beyond the recognition of the United Nations.”

He said it not at Darnes, but across the way to Wil. The American had difficulty not blinking. Nodding incessantly, it seemed like he finally understood.

“Okay, okay. I see now. That’s why you need the factions.”

Out from the throng of regulars, Shirley held an arm out in the middle of the conversation.

“No, Yeung-Sung, it’s not the same,” he interjected. “This pursuit will not bring you happiness, and it will not destroy Jordan.”

Yeung-Sung backed into the table hard, grinding his teeth. “You think I can’t do it?”

“It doesn’t matter if you can or not!”

“oh, so you do think I can’t!” Yeung-Sung sneered. “He’s a madman that needs t be stopped.” He turned to others. “AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO SEES THIS?”

He swept through each face -Mamba, Anita, Woo-Yi, Shirley-

and as he did so -Martin, Darnes, Wil, Fenrick, Steph-

his inner fear was realised. Yeung-Sung understood then that he was alone.

None of them get it. I stand here as physical proof of his madness. How can they justify what he did? If they have some reason, shouldn’t they have brought it up by now? No, they choose to ignore it, choose to believe in his colony. In this stupid dream that Jordan has let them become a part of.

The pain returned then, but worse. As he raised his arm by the elbow, shaking it in front of them, howling out in tears and sweat, he was grateful for the pain. Grateful for showing him the truth that he had held on to since the beginning. And grateful that it gave him something to hide behind, something to express how alone he felt without fear of judgement.

Yeung-Sung had been doubting himself ever since he left the Wick on that first night. Even after the assault he was convinced that there had to be a solid reason for Jordan, of all people, to do such a thing. But there wasn’t. And now, he had to amputate it from his memory.

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About the author

Sleepy Rus

Bio: In a world full of coffee, I still fall asleep at will.
Hey, I'm Sleepy!
Huge reader, weeb and gamer. I've recently gotten into LitRPGs, and although I wouldn't say any of my work strictly falls under that genre (yet!) I am hugely influenced by it.
Let me get one thing straight, I love a mystery with a huge reveal, really flawed and under-powered protagonists and deep game/magic systems.
Recommend me something you think I'd like! I'd love to read something of yours, or look over some work if you need a hand. One benefit to sleeping all the time is I'm always well rested. Ha!

Sleep Well,

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