“All I’m saying is that it would be far more realistic if more criminals were shot in their hands.”
The gaggle of party attendees huddled around Rainer went silent, and not for the first time that night. Small of stature though he was, Rainer was an expert at making bold pronouncements that could catch the attention of even the most overstimulated rave-junkie.
“But hands are difficult targets to hit,” said one the girls, a drink in her right hand, the left fondling a glowing, neon hoop-necklace. “It makes more sense to go for the chest or head or something.”
“If you’re shooting from across the room, sure,” Rainer said, gesturing at the girl with his beer bottle. “But I’m talking about when the good guy’s got the bad guy on the ropes. He’s on the floor and begging for his life or whatever. Being the good guy, our hero will usually tie the dude up. Try and take him out of the fight. If he’s the jaded, anti-hero style protagonist, sure, maybe he caps the dude right there. But for the sake of argument, he’s the knight in shining armor type, and he ties the guy up.”
Rainer stood under a spotlight, of which there were a dozen in the entire, massive warehouse. As a result, there were explosions of color here and there, as partygoers frolicked and stumbled between the beams, in most cases only accidentally calling attention to themselves before once more drifting into the darkness, where they could get up to anything, unnoticed.
The attendees all seemed to be covered in tattoos, piercings, and space-referential costumes. Those that lacked the latter looked like street punks from a 1970’s dystopian science fiction film. As had been the case at all the parties Mickey had invited Cain to in the past, everyone was incredibly friendly, and far too cool to be so genial.
As with the other parties, there were also bags of illicit substances being passed around, alongside handfuls of needles and pills. Cain was pretty sure he saw the telltale black and white capsule of a rave domino more than once.
“So why would he need to shoot the guy’s hands?” Mickey asked, as he pulled closer a girl he’d been dancing with all night. “Seems like overkill.”
“It does, doesn’t it? And that’s why it’s become such a trope. Mr. Good Guy is who he is because he doesn’t want to do more damage than necessary. If he did, he’d be Mr. Bad Guy, or at best, Mr. Guy Who’s Allegiance Is Unclear. And that can look like sloppy storytelling. So I posit that the optimal solution to this conundrum is,” Rainer fired an imaginary gun at an imaginary villain on the floor. Twice. “One through each palm. It effectively takes the guy out of the fight, and potentially all future fights. He’s still alive, and maybe has the chance to think long and hard about the life he’s been living, but he does so without the manual dexterity to hurt anyone again.”
“The modern equivalent of a sultan having a thief’s hand cut off,” said a heavily tattooed, dreadlocked girl opposite Rainer. “But with slightly less mutilation involved. And it slows down Mr. Good Guy less, in the heat of battle.”
Many cultures throughout history have worn dreadlocks, for religious, political, cultural, or practical reasons.
The modern, Western adoption of dreadlocks, often called ‘dreads’ in this context, was the result of reggae music achieving popularity in the United States in the 1970’s. Like tattoos and piercings, dreadlocks tend to be an indication of countercultural leanings, even though they’ve largely been adopted into the mainstream.
Rainer smiled. “Exactly. Yes. Thank you.” He took a bow and finished his beer. The crowd dispersed, and the dreadlocked girl gave him a wink before meandering back to the drink table.
I shook my head and clinked my drink against Rainer’s empty bottle. “I don’t know how it is you manage to flirt through ramblings about comic books and time travel and whatnot.”
He shrugged. “It’s what I know. And the girls out here seem more interested in that kind of stuff than the girls back in Smithton.”
“Lots of opportunities for a man with your monologuing skills.” I looked wistfully at the drink table.
“Well, it’s nice to be noticed. But, you know. I’m taken.” He took a sip from his empty bottle, and frowned mightily when no drink was forthcoming.
“How is all that? How’re things with Francis?”
“Good! Good. I mean, you know. It’s tough not being able to communicate directly very often. The cloak and dagger stuff is kind of fun, sometimes, and it’s definitely necessary so that I don’t accidentally point any, uhm, interested parties her way.” He wilted a little, his bravado dissolving. “But it would be nice to take her out to something like this every once in a while.”
I patted him on the back. “It’ll work itself out, man.”
“Has she thought about, I don’t know, not killing people anymore? That would alleviate most of the necessity for sneaking around, I’d think.”
His shoulders dipped even further. “It’s come up. I don’t know. Part of what I like about her is that she knows who she is, morally. Philosophically. She’s acting in accordance with those values.” He straightened back up and walked toward the drink table. “It’ll be good. We’ll be good.”
“Yes, we will,” I said to his back, as Mickey caught my eye and headed my way, sans his arm candy.
“How’s it going, Cain? How was Smithton?” He handed me a fresh drink, though I wasn’t done with my current one. I held one bottle in each hand, unsure of what to do. I knew I never saw cool people holding two drinks, and I wondered how they avoided such a scenario. Maybe they just drank really fast?
Most beer in North America is distributed in what’s known as the Industry Standard Bottle, or ISB. These bottles have a uniform weight, height, capacity, and diameter, and can be reused an average of sixteen times before being recycled or discarded.
“It was good! Thanks for asking. I mean, strange. Very strange, actually. I may have accidentally recruited someone for, ah,” I looked around to see if anyone was within hearing distance. Since it was a party, everyone kind of was, but no one seemed to be paying attention to our conversation. I leaned in closer and spoke as low as I could while still being heard over the din of other conversations and background music. “For The Commons. This tech guy who works for the government.”
I was a little concerned that Mickey would be worried, and maybe have a bunch of questions I didn’t know how to answer. But instead he smiled and clinked his bottle against the one he’d handed me. “That’s great, man. Spreading the good word. I’ll have to get his contact info from you, so we can touch base and see where he can plug in. Might just be we plug him into whatever scene we’ve already got up there. Might be he’s more of an asset, you know?”
“Totally,” I said. I didn’t know. Not really.
Mickey said, “So a few things have happened recently. We were all laying low for a bit, making sure our little jaunt into Dr. Steinberg’s lab didn’t kick up too much dust.”
“The device, you mean? The one in my shoe?”
“The very same. It’s given us some very interesting stuff to play with. Ty and his tech crew have been like kids in a toy store recently, and have been focusing their time on getting some things weaponized and…”
“No, no. Not like that,” Mickey said. “Like, ‘weaponized’ as in ‘ready to deploy.’ Practical. Taking the tech concepts and rolling them out as devices. Not like, actual weapons.”
“Oh, okay. Got it.” I was more than a little relieved. From what I could tell, there were plenty of actual weapons being developed by Steinberg, and I was momentarily concerned I might have enabled some kind of arms race between him and The Commons.
“One more thing that happened while you were away, Cain. And this one’s, ah, a little tricky.”
“Valerie, man. You two had a date.”
Cain didn’t feel like he was sinking, so much as collapsing into himself, at the stomach. As if a black hole had appeared somewhere between his esophagus and small intestine, and was beginning to pull him inward, reducing him to something small and dense and lifeless.
“Oh hell.” My hand shot up to my head, as part of some kind of ‘oops, I forgot’ reflex. Both of my hands were full, though, so it kind of looked like I was trying to cool my forehead with a bottle of beer. Thankfully, Mickey took my strange reaction in turn, and didn’t say anything. “Damn. Okay. Did she…is she…?”
“She’s here, man.” He gestured with his own bottle, over toward a corner of the room that was bustling with party-goers. I thought I could make out a swatch of hair that could have been hers, but I wasn’t certain. “I don’t know, it’s between you and her, but I think she’s a little sore about it.”
“I totally blanked. We went on a date just before things went south with the doc.”
“I know, I know. The voices thing spooked you.”
“It more than spooked me! My brain waves sent two people into comas!”
“Very spooky,” Mickey said. “And I’m sure she’ll understand.” He took a sip of his drink. “You should say something to her, though. So she knows the circumstances. That it wasn’t personal.”
I looked over at the corner where she was supposedly standing, drinking, chatting. It was so crowded. So cluttered with people. I took a sip of one of my drinks and said, “Okay.”
“Okay then,” Mickey said.
“Here I go.”
“You’re not moving.”
Cain felt a tingling in his fingers, and willed the sensation down to his feet. The tingle — almost a flutter — felt vaguely like life, but Cain reasoned that ‘feeling’ was enough to start with, at the moment. That a sensation of any kind would be suitable to lurch him forward, toward an interaction he truly didn’t wish to have. Something that needed to be done, but optimally by someone else.
But there was no one else who could do it.
I nodded, handed Mickey my half-empty bottle and held the full one in front of my chest, like a battering ram. I slid through the crowd, angling and pivoting to avoid slamming into anyone, eventually slowing to a near-crawl as I entered a thick, supersaturated part of the room.
She was standing with two other girls and a guy. The guy had those wooden disc things in his ears, stretching the lobes to an unlikely proportion, and a ring through his nose. Valerie was laughing at something he said, and put a hand on his arm.
King Tutankhamen, a pharaoh of Egypt, is one of the first known historical figures to have stretched ear lobes, as illustrated in images on his sarcophagus. Gautama Buddha was also often portrayed with stretched ear lobes, which was an indicator of wealth and status in India during his lifetime.
It was pointless. Not worth the time or humiliation. I’d send her a text or something, apologize, and let her move on with her life. A happy life with pegs-in-ears guy, who probably always made it to dates on time.
I slid back to a less-dense part of the room and found a crate to sit on. I nursed my beer and waited for Rainer to tire out so we could go home.
I was back in LA. Hooray.