Persia: Okay, we're all set. Call me whenever you're ready.
Hammer: youre alone?
Persia: Yes. Guards are outside, but I'm alone.
My adrenaline spiked like a rocket. I couldn't keep my hand from shaking as I lifted the phone up to my face. I glanced at the camera, just to make sure it took in my entire face, but also blocked out anything of note behind me. Every location option on the phone was disabled, including the secret ones Darius loaded onto all of our phones.
If my brother had figured it out, or if Hammer had called it in, they weren't going to find me fast. We did have access to the cell networks, so they could eventually triangulate me, but this was an internet call and not through traditional cell service, so I could easily bounce it a few times before it went out. I should have enough time to talk… and enough time to figure out if he needed to die.
I pressed call.
Text raced across the screen as the application bounced through seven different proxy servers, each employing a different encryption protocol. I'd never be able to call Darius without one of our phones. There were simply too many security layers we'd added to our system, and our phones were absolutely secure.
It rang twice. Darius always picked up before the third ring. I tensed up as it started to sound the third—and suddenly, there he was.
His eyes, half-visible behind his glasses, went wide.
"Don't hang up."
I spoke so quickly, the words ran together. Darius took a visible second to comprehend what I'd said, his expression full of caution.
"...What are you doing, Kara?" he asked. His voice was quiet and firm, and I knew for certain—if he was using my real name, he was alone. I could see another desktop machine behind him in the corner near an empty cot, and Darius sat in a simple office chair. Besides that, the room was quite bare. Our lockdown hideouts weren't exactly designed for comfort, after all.
"I needed to talk to you."
"So you stole my bodyguard's phone?"
I felt a twinge of embarrassment, despite everything. "Well… I lost mine."
"That's really not like you." His voice held an undercurrent of disapproval, a tone Darius had become infamous for. Hearing it in his voice generally meant you were about to meet a very swift end.
I took a breath. "It's already been nuked. Our opsec is secure."
Darius frowned. "Kara, the phone doesn't matter. Please stop avoiding the topic."
"I'm not avoiding it," I said, though of course, I was. "I'm…" Trying to figure out how to ask if you violated my brain and erased my life. If you've been manipulating me all these years. If you're really my brother.
"You took a job to kill me."
"Two nights ago, at the conference above the Vibrato, you killed one of our men," Darius went on. A brief shock rolled through me, but Darius kept going before I could respond. "There's a hit out on me, and it was claimed by one of your aliases. You never checked in. Your phone wasn't responding."
I shook my head, but my voice caught in my throat.
"I trust you see the pattern," said Darius, oddly calm for the list he'd just rattled off.
"What do you mean, killed one of our men?" I finally managed.
"It shouldn't be a surprise. I've never known you to miss, Kara. Even on your very first job…" He shook his head. "Why do you want to kill me?"
"I… I don't." Or maybe I do. I don't know anymore. I… what is going on?
Darius raised an eyebrow. "What, then?"
He sighed. "Why what, Kara? Specify."
Darius had the same air of annoyance as when he used to teach me, before he brought in the professor. Seeing that same restrained frustration, that familiarity, pushed me over the edge.
"Why did you erase my life?" I snapped.
He froze up. I waited, while Darius slowly brought himself back together. I could barely see his eyes, but his whole face was like a statue, totally stuck. It was his turn to come up empty.
"You erased my memory, Dar…" My voice cracked, but I forced myself to keep going. "You changed me. I don't know who I am anymore. I don't know… anything. Am I me? Did you just… make all this up? How can I know?"
He shook his head. "Everything you remember is real," Darius said firmly. "Memories can't be created or altered. All… all we could do was hide them." His voice was quiet and steady, but I could tell he was uncomfortable too. He was blinking more often, his head tilted more, he twitched slightly and focused his gaze away from the screen.
My mind was racing, trying to find answers that made sense, but nothing came to mind. "Why?"
"Specify, Kara," he said again.
"Why did you do this to me?"
"I can't tell you why."
"You can't?" I snapped. "I can't remember who I am! I don't know if Kara is even my name! Are you even my real brother? Is any of it true?"
"Yes. It is. All of it. I never lied to you."
"You violated my mind!" I shouted. "Tell me why!"
"Because you asked me to!" cried Darius, his face bulging with emotions—terror chief amongst them.
I dropped the phone. My world stopped.
What did that mean? I'd asked for this?
My anger melted away, lost in a morass of a thousand emotions. I was confused, I was afraid, I was hopeless and lost and desperate and stressed and trapped and lonely and terrified. Panic and anxiety began to swallow me up, taking every emotion and amplifying it tenfold. I needed to move. I needed an exit.
Except… it was all in my mind. How could I get away from my own mind?
The phone chirped on the ground. Something else was happening on Darius' end. I rocked back and forth, trying to breathe, trying to think. A few words floated through my ears from the phone: "Hammer", "lowlife", "killed", "Jack"—and abruptly, the call disconnected.
My panic increased tenfold. I slammed my heel into the phone and shattered it.
That wouldn't be enough, though. I got to my feet, head pounding. They could be coming for me. I had no way of knowing if I'd been traced. Without a moment to lose, I sprinted for the door, heedless of the continuing spikes of pain from the gunshot wounds. I needed to get away.
But where? My hideouts could be compromised too…
Night had truly fallen by now, and there weren't many people outside. I bolted outside, slammed by the curtain of water falling from the sky, and rushed onto the street. There weren't many people around, but I heard shouting. Someone stood out—a man, face darkened by a hat, a long overcoat hugging his shoulders. He could be concealing any number of weapons. The man's hand withdrew from one, and lifted to his ear.
Was he calling Darius? Calling Hammer? Calling Jack?
I had no idea, and I wasn't about to find out. I drew my pistol and shouted—a meaningless sound, a rage and confusion-fueled primal roar of pain.
He dropped the phone and bolted, practically screaming, into the nearest alleyway. I reached his phone and picked it up. The number was 9-1-1, and he'd just pressed call. He wasn't involved… but the cops would be on their way. I needed to get moving, either way.
I let out a huge breath. My heart kept racing and my head kept thumping, as if I'd just run a dozen miles, but I seemed to be in the clear for now. I started moving, a bit less frenzied this time, more controlled, more purposeful.
The back of my neck was prickling so much now, it might as well have a porcupine stuck to it.
Another voice called out behind me, something I didn't quite understand. For the briefest moment, I thought it sounded familiar, but I didn't dare turn around to check. If it was familiar, it could be someone from our gang. I needed to get out of there. Taking a page out of Faith's book, I ducked into an alley and immediately broke into another sprint.
By the time I went through two more alleys, I was pretty sure nobody was following me.
I took a moment to catch my breath. My bag was too loose, bouncing against my leg as I ran. I tightened it, and double-checked my bandages again to make sure I wasn't bleeding all over the place. They'd probably never heal at this rate, with how little time I had to rest and recover. My other eye was never going to get fully charged either, as it perpetually hung in the lower third of its battery life.
My hideout. I need to get to my hideout.
Getting there wouldn't be easy. I wasn't in our district, nor was my hideout, but I'd have to get pretty close. Either that, or I'd be heading into a part of the city where I was probably worse off—the richest sector, where the cops made regular patrols twenty four hours a day, along with tons of corporate security. They'd scan the guns I was carrying and take me out in no time at all.
I didn't have another choice. I started off, moving between city blocks, desperate to reach my hideout and some measure of safety. I wanted something familiar and safe, but Darius had taken everything else away. All I had were the few places I'd made for myself, and the rifle tucked safe in the bag at my hip.
It wasn't Darius' rifle. It was mine. I could trust that, if nothing else. Even if he'd had it designed for me, custom-built with technologies most militaries didn't even have access to, I wouldn't let him have that part of me.
I heard a gunshot.
Instinctively, I dove to the ground, though it hadn't been near me. There was a good block or two between me and the source of the shot, but in my current state, I was on a hair trigger for everything. As I crouched in cover, watching down the street, I heard screams.
It was coming from our district.
People began diving for cover, screaming and panicking. Gunfire in our district was practically unheard of. It was why I'd been so shocked that our people started firing in the open when I'd gotten near. We kept the peace, and we'd been too strong for anyone to challenge. Except… apparently somebody was, right now. It couldn't be a coincidence.
I moved forward, darting around the townhouse steps one by one, keeping to the darkest parts of the street. I saw a streetlamp pop ahead as someone shot it out. It disgusted me. I hated seeing this sort of public terror, watching dark shapes rushing through the city night, gunning for each other in the open.
Guns were a private thing. They shouldn't have been brought into the public like this. Firearms were for taking out threats and keeping the peace, not for this sort of wanton violence. The public wasn't ever supposed to see something like this. We had rules. They were unspoken, unwritten rules, but it was a code, and nobody broke it.
I dove to the wall as an SUV spun around the corner ahead. From cover, I watched the windows burst open as gunfire peppered the sides. Flashes of fire shot back out, the chatter of an automatic weapon. They fired indiscriminately into the street, and I was almost certain they'd hit the bystanders cowering behind cover.
Above the sidewalk, the windows of the apartment building shattered. People were firing back—our people. I even recognized one of them, silhouetted in the light from his bedroom. They took out the gunners in the car, but more were arriving. This was erupting into a full-on battle in the middle of the night—and I was stuck in it.
A car was driving straight down the street toward me. I pulled out my rifle and slammed the button to expand it. One shot, straight into the front tire.
It burst. The car skidded off to the side and slammed into a fire hydrant. Water burst into the air, mixing with the pouring rain.
I dropped my rifle back into my bag and turned away. I couldn't get to my hideout. This was only getting bigger. We'd never had a real street war in Seattle. Most disputes here got settled with words or money. If that wasn't enough, someone like me was employed. We kept things civil, compared to some of the other urban sprawls at any rate. Every gang maintained a respectable armory, but it was all about intimidation. Nobody ever expected to use it.
Well… guess it was bound to happen sooner or later.
Who was going after us though? My first thought was Jack, of course… but we'd been on solid terms with him. More importantly, he didn't have the best relationship with the other major gangs of the city. We kept them in line, which let Jack operate in relative peace on the coast. If he was attacking us, it put him in just as much risk.
More gunfire erupted in front of me. The streets echoed in every direction with bullets crackling and ricocheting off stone walls. I couldn't get anywhere now. This wasn't just one battle. This was a whole war, just like I'd thought, and I was trapped in the middle of it.
I could go into an apartment complex, but I didn't want to tangle with the residents. For now, I was still just another anonymous civilian, a nobody in the crowd as long as I didn't draw my weapons. My hand was in my bag clutching the grip of my pistol at all times, just in case, but outwardly I just looked like anyone else on the street.
A shop. I could see corner stores starting to close up, metal security shutters slamming down, the occupants praying they were bulletproof enough to protect against stray gunfire.
Wouldn't work against my rifle, but everything else…
I sprinted toward the nearest open shop. It was a bar set into the corner of the block. The lights were on, and I could see a man rushing down the stairs to reach a button on the wall.
The metal shutter began to slide closed behind the doors, while every window in the place matched it. I reached the door and yanked it open. The shutters were over halfway down. I dove.
I only barely made it inside. As I landed on the tile floor, a sharp wave of pain rushed through my body. I cried out against every instinct, and a huge wave of nausea cascaded down into my stomach. It was too much. Between the stress, the adrenaline, the sharp waves of agony and nausea, I fell apart.
As my world faded away into pitch black, I only vaguely made out the face of an old man walking toward me, saying something I couldn't possibly understand.
I still felt groggy, and pain in my shoulder and stomach was flaring up again. The whole world was dark and cloudy, as though I were trapped in a huge fog—except for my other eye. It was giving me something totally different. I saw something… spinning. It kept moving in circles, over and over, leaving and coming back around again way above my head. It took me a few minutes to figure out what it was.
A ceiling fan. I'm in a bar. Middle of the night. There's a war going on.
My eye snapped back into focus. I felt like my brain was a solid rock, a huge weight instead of the sharp muscle I relied on every day. I struggled to catch up to where I was, focusing on the environment around me.
A faint whumph signaled an explosion of some kind, muffled by the metal shutters around us. More tap-taps, bullets plinking off random parts of the street. The battle continued in earnest outside, but I seemed to be safe for now.
The guy who owned the bar suddenly popped into my brain. I felt around, and realized I'd been moved onto the bench of a booth nearby. My bag lay next to me… and my guns were still inside. I breathed a sigh of relief.
"You awake?" asked a voice nearby, nervous and shaking.
I stiffened. My hand grabbed my pistol without thinking. I took aim, but I didn't see him anywhere.
"I don't want any trouble," he said.
"I—" A cough overtook me. I had to clear my throat, struggling to breathe properly. It wasn't easy still laying on my back, so I struggled upright—and found myself staring down a double-barreled shotgun.
"...You gonna be trouble?" asked the old man, shaking a little.
"No," I said, doing my best not to move.
"You got a gun."
"So do you," I pointed out. "Most people can't get guns in Seattle."
"Gotta protect myself," he said. "Dangerous 'round here."
"...You're from the Republic?" I asked, trying to ease him back a little. It was audible in his accent—a Texan lilt just under the surface. Most Texan transplants tried to hide it. There was a prejudice against them in parts of Cascadia, and though the law protected them from discrimination, that didn't stop people from treating Texans like outsiders.
"Born and raised," he said proudly, and the shotgun lowered a little. "So don't think I don't know how to use this, miss."
"I'm just trying to hide," I said, as calmly as I could manage. "I don't want any trouble either."
"...Okay," he said finally, lifting the gun away. He glanced at the door, still securely locked behind the metal shutter.
I coughed a few more times, and finally struggled fully upright. "Is anybody else here?"
"Nope. I was gonna close down for the night when everythin' started explodin'." He squinted at me. "The hell's goin' on out there?"
"I don't know," I answered honestly.
I had a few rough ideas, but right now, I felt as clueless as he did. I felt like Jack had to be involved… and I felt like I was being used somehow. I didn't like it. I needed more information, and now that I had a safe place for a little bit, I could actually start getting some.
The old man had lowered his shotgun completely, though he hadn't let go of it yet. I still had to step carefully around him.
"Do you have a computer I could borrow, please?" I asked as politely as I could.
He snapped back to look at me, eyes narrowed. "What d'ya need a computer for?"
"I want to message a friend and let them know I'm safe. Also, not to come out this way tonight…"
His eyes softened. I felt weirdly uncomfortable taking advantage of him like this, but… I wasn't going to really do anything bad here.
"I'll go get my niece's laptop," he said finally. "You wait right here."
As soon as he left, I wished he'd come back. The moment he'd disappeared upstairs, the full weight of what I'd heard back in the abandoned store started to hit me.
Darius said… said I asked for it?
He had to be lying… except Darius never lied to me. That part I felt was true, and he'd reaffirmed it. Yet… he'd done this to me. Which was I supposed to believe?
He should have told me. But… if he told me, I'd ask to know what I didn't want to remember. Do I… do I want to remember it still?
I needed to know. Not knowing was worse, I could say that with certainty now. Nothing could be worse than being trapped inside my own skull, feeling like pieces were missing from my life, and never being sure which parts were true and which were a construction.
He said they couldn't make new memories. Do I believe him?
If he was telling the truth, maybe I could find real answers. If he was lying… did it matter? I wasn't sure. Either my whole life was a fake, and I'd kill Darius, or… he'd just construct new memories again, and I'd never know. If I was going to stay sane, I had to believe the memories in my head were real. Anything else, and I'd fall apart completely.
The barkeep returned with a laptop plastered with giant flower stickers. I took it gratefully and plugged in at the table. To my relief, he had solid internet. Immediately, I copied out all the files I'd taken off Jack's laptop from my portable drive, so I could start investigating them more thoroughly.
There was… a lot. All of it had to do with Darius… and most of it wasn't good.
The old man was back behind his bar now, polishing glasses between glances at me and at the door. He still seemed nervous, but I got the impression it was more to do with the outside than with me. Thankfully, the gunfire had finally died down, though we still heard more shouting and the occasional shot—the war definitely wasn't over.
I couldn't bear to look at the contents anymore. I'd learned more about Darius' operations than I'd ever known, in mere minutes. He was my brother. I'd worked for him for years now, at the top of his gang… or so I thought.
This could still be false. I don't know where this all came from. I need proof.
The forensic tools did their job. Most of the metadata was scrubbed clean, but I found a server origin point buried within the directory structure on a few hidden files. Jack wasn't good with computers—I doubt he had a clue how to clean most of this—but someone else had cleaned it. They'd missed one or two tiny pieces, barely identifiable crumbs.
I recognized those crumbs. I knew exactly where Jack got all his info from, because I used the same secret broker.
There were few people in the city with the kind of connections to get any kind of info you needed at a moment's notice. We had one in our gang, but when I was working an outside job, or I didn't want Darius to know what I was doing, I used Jerome. Everybody did, because Jerome was the best-connected scum in the city.
I hated him. Everyone hated him. But he did his job well, he did it fast, and he charged a pretty reasonable price, so everybody used him. Now, as I was fast learning, 'everybody' included Jack.
Guess I'm going to give Jerome a visit.
As I got to my feet, I felt dizzy. I nearly fell over, and had to drop back onto the booth bench again, clutching my stomach.
"You okay?" asked the barkeep nervously.
"Just… just need a minute," I choked out. After a few minutes, though, it became clear I needed rest more than anything. With reluctance, I glanced up at him. "Can I sleep here tonight?"
"...Anyone after you?"
I shook my head. "No." Not right now, anyway… Darius specifically said I could wait, and Jack is waiting on me to go after Darius. Everybody's gonna be distracted with whatever's going on outside. I should be safe for the night.
"...Okay." He glanced at the door upstairs. "I'm gonna lock the door though. You stay down here. If you want somethin' to eat, it's yours, but… you're gone in the mornin', ya hear?"
I nodded, and immediately regretted the motion. "I'll leave money on the counter."
"Don' worry about it," he muttered, retreating upstairs to leave me alone.
When he was gone, I laid back down again. I normally wouldn't be able to sleep in a strange place without any assurance of security… but these were unusual circumstances, and I felt like I was in way over my head.
The most important person to rely upon is you. All the friends and allies in the world cannot help you if you can't trust yourself to get the job done.
Darius' words echoed endlessly in my head, a never-ending parade of platitudes and advice. Even now, when I wasn't sure if I hated him, if I could trust him, if I wanted to kill him… I still took his advice to heart. If nothing else, I trusted myself now. I trusted my own memories, though they abruptly stopped four years ago.
My brother had raised me to take care of myself in every situation, and now, stuck in a booth in some no-name bar, while a street war continued all around me, I felt the results of his pseudo-parentage more than ever. As I drifted back to sleep, pistol gripped tight in my hand, I held tight to that single thought—that I could take care of myself.