Aphelion Issue 256, Volume 24
November 2020
 
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It's Just Another Job

by Robert Vaughn




It's 9pm on a Friday night. My buddy Vince and I stand in an enormous server room on the top floor of the Kudo Power Building, overlooking what's now Plex City. We used to call it Los Angeles before The Great Buyout of America, when the politicos fucked over the economy so badly they had to beg the multinational corporations to bail them out, rather than the other way around. When all was said and done, five megacorps had divided up what used to be the United States. Kudo Power is one of them; I work for another, Lone Star Oil and Heavy Industries.

"It's nothing personal, Vince," I tell my friend calmly.

"Are you insane? It's pretty fucking personal to me!" he shouts.

"It's just another job. You know how it goes in our line of work," I tell him, the laser sight painting a red dot on his forehead, just above the bridge of his nose. It doesn't waver.

Vince stands with his hands in the air, a look of disgust and disappointment on his face. "A job? A fucking job?! Fuck you! We fought together side-by-side! Worked together for years! You're practically family!" he yells at me in rage. "My kids call you Uncle Dyce!" His rage fades into sadness at the end. "Why? Why would you do this?"

"Ren," I stress. "My name is Ren. It's nothing personal toward you. Like I said, it's just a job. You're required collateral damage." That said, I pull the trigger and put Vince down like a sack of potatoes. The hole in his head doesn't even have time to bleed; he's dead before he hits the floor. I'm thankful the end was so quick for him.

Holstering my vintage Sig Sauer P320, I walk over to the fat black cylinder extending from floor to ceiling that dominates the center of the room. It's the housing of what the megacorps call an ultracomputer. I reach into my pocket and pull out a long USB cord. I plug one end of the cord into the computer; then I slide a small slit open on the back of my neck, revealing an USB port, and plug the cord into me. After ordering the computer to manifest a holoboard, I type for a few minutes, until a download holo pops up on the keyboard. "Come on, come on. Pick up the pace," I mutter as I peer at the progress bar. Some things never change.

"What do you think you're doing?" a voice asks behind me.

"Kidnapping you," I respond. I turned to face Shiro Kudo, owner and CEO of Kudo Power.

"And how do you plan on doing that?" he demands.

"Should be obvious. Considering that you've really been dead for years now, and that your techs downloaded your consciousness as an AI so you could still retain control of the company, I just have to download you and walk out. I'll give you credit, though. Using a hologram to make TV broadcasts. Using body doubles to make public appearances. Brilliant."

"You will not make it back to wherever you came from. Eight territories are under my full control." His hologram, which had been flickering throughout our conversation, goes semi-transparent.

"Money is an excellent motivator, so I'll take my chances."

"What are you? A freelancer? A spy from another corporate nation?" he inquires.

"Does it really matter?"

He laughs a bit, shaking his head. "You're right. It doesn't." He points to the holoscreen. "Look."

I turn around, carefully, and glance at the computer screen. He has my attention. On one half of the screen is a video of me killing Vince on repeat; and on the other half is my Kudo Power company profile, with my photo prominently displayed. Kudo gloats, "I just emailed that to every hitman, bounty hunter, mercenary, and gang on the continent. You are correct about money being an excellent motivator. I have offered fourteen million credits to the person who literally brings me your head, and I have already gotten one hundred and three replies."

Wow, that was fast. But then, fourteen million creds is nearly a billion of the old hyper-inflated USD a lot of us grew up with. The hologram flickers one last time before disappearing. I turn my attention back to the computer, seeing that the download is complete. I unplug the UBS cord and pocket it, then quickly head out the room towards the stairway.

Once inside the stairway, I pull the fire alarm, causing it to howl and buzz throughout the building. I rush down the stairs and blend in the panicked and confused crowd. Once outside, I peel away from the crowd slowly, so as to not raise any suspicion. Once I'm far from the crowd, I make way down the sidewalk, blending in with the public. I take out my phone and make a call.

A female picks up. "Lone Star Oil and Heavy Industries."

I keep walking, looking over my shoulder every now and then to make sure I'm not being followed. "Employee Number S513640. I need to speak to my manager."

"One moment, please."

The phone rings twice before someone answers. "Rufus King."

"Ren. It's done. I need an extraction." My head is on a swivel.

"Good," Rufus purrs, "but there's a problem. The Board of Executives won't send an extraction team. There's a buzz in the intelligence communities; they know something is up within the Kudo Territories. The Board of Executives doesn't want to take any chances with any of our other personnel in Kudo."

Still looking around, I duck into a nearby alleyway away from the public. "You gotta to be fucking kidding me. I now have a whole other person inside my brain, and a 14 million credit bounty on my head."

"Just make yourself scarce, and let me see what I can do. I'll get back to ASAP." Rufus hangs up.

"Fuck," I spit under my breath. "Okay, think."

I take about two minutes before coming up with the idea to head for the local red-light district, the city of Compton. It takes me about thirty minutes to get there. The place is busier than any downtown in a major city. People all over the place. Bumper-to-bumper traffic. Whatever you want, you can get in Compton. Drugs, booze, legal and illegal cybernetic implants, sex, slaves, whatever. I figure I'll disappear in Compton and wait until I hear from Rufus.

I walk into a random bar, your everyday, typical dive. Nothing to write home about. I head up to the bar counter and take a seat. A woman who's more machine than human steps over to me. Her left arm is metal; half her face is chrome, with a shiny, green-lit optical implant where her eye should be. I figure she probably served in Second Korea. Even her voice has a metallic ring. "Hello there, sir, what can I get you?"

"House beer."

She nods. "Coming up." A long metal tendril with a claw at the end emerges from behind her and grabs a beer mug, handing it to her human hand, and she pours me a beer from the tap. She hands the mug me. "Want me to keep a tab open?"

"No, close it." I reach into my pocket, handing her enough credit chips to pay for the beer and then some. "The rest is your tip. Thanks for your service."

She knows I don't just mean the beer. She smiles and takes the money. "You're welcome. Let me know if you need anything else." She walks away, and I drink my beer.

While I sit at the bar, I take out my phone and look at it, waiting for my boss to call me back. Come on, Rufus, I think impatiently.

"...don't care who he is, 14 mill is a lot of money. We're gonna head after 'im, and we're gettin' paid. Oy, Susan, let's get a pitcher of our usual," says some yobbo with a thick Irish accent. Fucking amateurs. A touch at my waist preps my gun for action.

I take another drink of my beer, and look into the mirror that's always behind bars. I see two men take a seat at random table. I get up, abandoning half a beer, and make my way to the exit. As I walk out, I bump into another guy walking in. "Sorry about that," I say.

"It's cool, no harm done," he says, also having a thick Irish accent. But before I can leave, he places his hand on my chest to stop me. "D'I know you from somewhere?"

I shake my head. "Nah, doubt it." I push his hand away from my chest.

I take a few more steps before he stutter-steps forward and puts his hand back on my chest. "Nah, fella, I seen you somewhere recently." He looks at me a few more seconds before the epiphany hits, and he yells, "Oy! It's him, the 14-million credit man!"

I'd rather give them the slip than deal with making three new corpses, so I push him to the floor and make a quick escape, shoving my way through the crowded sidewalks as the three Irishmen give chase. I quickly turn the corner into an alleyway. I head down the alley and turn another corner to a dead-end. Trapped in the L-shape alleyway, I look around, knowing what I have to do next. I hug the wall out of sight, aimed toward the spot where they'll appear. Whoever shows gets a 9 x 19 mm Parabellum right in the head.

"Down this way, boys! It's time to get a little head!" one of them yells. Probably thinks he's funny. What a bunch of clueless idiots. Haven't they ever heard of stealth?

Their footsteps get closer and closer. The moment I see one of them turn the corner, I pull the trigger. Bits of blood and brain splatter as the one I shot drops. I pull the trigger once more, dropping another. The third tackles me to the ground, knocking the Sig out of my hand, sliding it away from us.

My reflexes must be getting slow in my old age.

We both struggle to get the upper hand while we roll around on the ground, trading punches. I kick him off me and scramble for the gun; as I do, I feel a quick, sharp pain in my calf as he stabs me in the leg. "You're not going anywhere! I'm getting paid!" he howls.

"Hasn't anyone ever told you not to bring a knife to a gunfight?" I snarl.

He rushes toward me, and is about to pounce on me like a lion as I shoot him three times center mass, in less time than it takes to say it. His lifeless body falls on top of me. What the hell did he think this was, a game of tag? I sigh a huge sigh of relief and irritation as I push his body off me, stand, and look down at my calf. That's when I feel my phone vibrate in my pocket.

I reach into my phone and answer it. "What?"

"Status?" Rufus asks me.

"Sitting in an alleyway surrounded by three dead Irish idiots, with a fucking switchblade in my leg."

"I see. Can you get to New Ella, New Mexico?"

I chuff out a disgusted breath. "What's there?"

"An extraction team. I convinced the Board to pull you out. Since New Mexico is right next to Texas, it'll be a lot easier to get you out and back to Lone Star. Problem is, we have a brief time window. Once in New Ella, you need to link up with the team, and they'll get you out. Let me know the moment you leave for New Ella and the moment you get there — that way the team can do what they need to do."

"Great," I snort.

"One more thing, Ren."

"Yeah?"

"Good luck." Rufus hangs up. Asshole.

I get up and start limping out of the alleyway, holstering my gun with the knife still in my goddamn leg. It doesn't take me long to find one of the many shady pharmacies in Compton. There you can find the typical things you would find at any pharmacy, including supposedly prescription drugs for sale that you can buy like you're buying a candy bar, and an assortment of other items. What I need is in the last category.

When I walk into the pharmacy, there's a large man sitting behind the counter in a white doctor's coat with a missing sleeve to show off his e-tattoo of a koi swimming around in a pond on his arm. He looks at me and leans over the counter, peering down at the knife sticking out of me. "Third aisle is what you looking for," he says, pointing it out. I walk over Aisle 3 and grab a medical grade stitching kit. I head to the counter and place the kit down on the counter. He takes the kit and scans it. "That'll be 45 credits."

Fucking expensive. A good meal rarely costs more than a couple of creds. I shove nine five-cred chips at him. "Where's your bathroom?"

He points to the back of the store. "Down the hallway, first door on the left."

"Thanks." I walk into the bathroom with the kit and lock the door behind me. The bathroom is surprisingly clean; maybe it won't infect the wound. With a hiss of pain, I yank the knife out of my calf and carefully patch myself up using the kit. I clean and pocket the switchblade. Might come in handy.

I walk out the bathroom ready to plan my next move.

"Evenin', Doc." I hear a thick Southern accent, half-familiar, coming from the front of the pharmacy. I hug the corner leading to the main part of the facility, draw my pistol, and ready myself for another fight.

"I'm lookin' for someone. Maybe you can help me out?" Southern Accent asks.

"You know the rules, Connor. I don't play sides. I'm just a doctor."

"I know. Figgered I'd try anyways."

I quickly step around the corner with my pistol aimed at a man in black jeans. Black cowboy boots with honest-to-God spurs to go with them. Angled across his white button-down shirt is a bandolier full of ammo. To finish his outfit, he has on a black cowboy hat with a snakeskin band around the hat. "How you doin', Connor?" I ask with a mad grin.

"Oh, fair to middlin'." Connor lifts his chrome arm and aims it at me. His palm is wide open, and in the center of it is a hole, the barrel of an internal gun. Looks like a .45. "Howdy, Ren. How you doin'?"

I shrug. "Been better."

He smiles. "I would imagine so."

"So, you going to let me leave, or does this get ugly?" I ask.

He scoffs at the comment. "I got a wife digging in my left pocket and a mistress digging in my right. Fourteen million credits will make things a whole lot better. Does that answer your question?"

"Not my problem if you can't keep it in your pants." I point out.

He chuckles a bit. "I've always liked you, Ren. You're good people, mostly. Saw what you did to Vince, of course, but you and your people have always treated me real nice. Giving me the first heads up on the big money contracts an' all."

"Well, you're good at what you do. So what happens now?"

I can hear a shotgun racking. "You both leave," say the doctor. Connor and I turn our heads to see Doc with a shotgun aimed at us. "I'm not going to ask twice, gents."

I shrug and holster my Sig; Connor lowers his arm. He walks over to the door and opens it. "After you."

"Thanks." I walk out the door, and he follows me out. I figure he's got enough class not to shoot me in the back, and he doesn't.

We stand outside the pharmacy, and Connor takes out a flask. He takes a swing before handing it to me. I take the flask and a swing, and hand it back to him. "Vodka?"

"I wanted try something new."

"Smooth."

"Stolichnaya. Let's walk and talk, Ren." We both make our way down the sidewalk. "Tell me why we shouldn't pick up where we left off a minute ago."

"Because Lone Star has always paid you well and given you first dibs on the high- value contracts, like you said."

"True, but you got a lot of money on your head. It ain't personal, you know?"

The hell it isn't. It pains me a bit to hear my own line used on me for the same reason. "Yeah, well, kill me and you never work for Lone Star again. Come on, Connor. I'm asking for a favor. Let this one slide."

"Make it worth my while." He takes another swing from the flask and hands it back to me.

I take a swing and hand it back to him. "What do you want?"

He takes another swig before pocketing the flask. He holds up his cybernetic arm. "Got some aging tech here. Word on the street is, Lone Star has somethin' new in the making."

"The Series 2 Covert Assault arm. Not happening — that's top-of-the-line equipment. Might as well go back inside and get some shotgun rounds in us. I need more than just your word on you not putting a bullet in my head," I say. "Or anywhere else."

Connor laughs. "You need more!? Last time I checked, you have the bounty on YOUR head, not me. But I'll humor you. More like what?"

"Get me out of California and to New Ella, New Mexico, and I'll make sure you get a Series 2 fresh off the production line." I offer my hand to him. "Deal?"

With his non-cybernetic arm, he shakes my head. "Deal."

Connor tells me we need to head to a small town in Arizona called Selbia. It's just over the border, off in the middle of nowhere, but there's a maglev station there that'll get me to New Ella. Connor and I then proceed to fight our way from Plex to Selbia. Not as much of a challenge as it sounds, since we're mostly fighting bully boys and low-level mercs. It takes us about a day and a half to get there.

"Once we get you on the train," he tells me as we cross the territorial line, "you'll will be New Ella in three hours. Maybe less."

I keep looking over my shoulder. "Great, sounds like a plan," I say in a slightly worried tone.

"You okay?" he asks me.

"No, actually. Some giant's been following us for a while now."

Connor looks over his shoulder and eyes the tall man, who easily tops seven feet. "Shit."

"You know him?"

"Yeah, Oleg Popov. Russian. Hired gun like us," Connor answers.

"How do you want to handle this?"

"Away from people. He doesn't give a damn about collateral damage." Connor points to a nearby construction site. "We can cut through there to get to the station. We should be able to lose him there. He's not the sharpest tool in the shed."

I nod, and we head into the construction site. A few minutes go by, and we get deep into the maze, with no sight of our buddy Oleg. "Good, I think we lost him," Connor mutters.

We keep moving through the site, which is huge and will probably end up housing another fusion plant. "C'mon, we're are almost there," Connor says quietly. The moment he turns the corner of a newly-poured wall, an arm comes blasting through the concrete. A hand the size of a catcher's mitt wraps around Connor's neck, lifting him off the ground. I see another giant hand peel the rest of the wall away like it's nothing, and Oleg steps through the hole he's made. Connor opens up with his cybernetic hand, unloading round after round into the Russian giant's face. After the gunsmoke clears, a clicking sound comes from Connor's cyber-arm. "Shit!"

Oleg tosses Connor across the way like he's nothing. When Connor hits the ground, a loaded magazine falls out of his pocket. The giant turns and looks at me; bits of skin fall off his face, revealing a slick steel skull like something out of those old James Cameron flicks.

"Oleg, how you doing, big guy?" Connor groans, getting up.

Oleg looks at Connor. "Well enough, Connor." Oleg turns back to me. "I can do this quickly, or you can make it hard on yourself. You choose," he tells me in his thick Russian accent.

"Can I pick 'neither'?" I ask, drawing my pistol and aiming it at him.

He shakes his head. "Sorry, fellow, but 14 million creds is lot of money." Not the first time I've heard that today. He points at the gun. "Bullets didn't help him. You think they help you?"

I shrug. "It's worth a shot."

Connor limps over to me and extends his cybernetic arm. An empty magazine pops out of the side of his forearm. "I got this. I'm about light his insides up like the Fourth of July." He digs around in pocket as Oleg walks closer to us.

"You got this, huh?" I ask.

He keeps digging around in his pocket. "Yeah, I got this."

My eyes shift over to him and back to Oleg as he gets closer to us.

"I not want to hurt you, Connor. Not for free." Oleg grabs Conner by the neck again and tosses him behind us like he's nothing. Connor gets to his feet, and his eyes dart over to the loaded magazine on the ground a few feet away from us. Oleg grabs Conner by the neck and tosses him behind us yet again. After seeing that, I unload the rest of my ammo into Oleg's chest. He looks down at his chest as bullets bounce off his body.

"Shit." I pull the trigger a few more times, until the gun dry fires. I sigh and holster my gun and fall into a fighting stance.

Oleg smirks. "I vill make it quick."

Once in striking distance, we exchange blows. Knowing not to punch his face or chest, I hit him underneath his ribs, where there are no cybernetic implants. Only problem is that it doesn't seem to faze him at all. With a powerful right hook, he knocks me to the ground face-first. He picks me up by my neck. We lock eyes as he begins to squeeze the life out of me. I reach into my pocket and take out the switchblade that stabbed my calf, pop it open, and I ram it deep into his left eye.

Oleg lets me go and I fall to my hands and knees, coughing and gasping for air. He stumbles around holding his ruined eye, before pulling the knife out and throwing it to the ground. Blood runs down from his eye socket, and drips from his chin to the ground. "I am ripping your head off body and using money to buy new eye!" Oleg yells, storming over to me.

Before he can take another step, a gunshot rings out and stops him dead in his tracks. He coughs up a puff of smoke. Two more gunshots shatter the silence, and he coughs up another puff of smoke as vapor comes out of his ears. Oleg's body falls to the ground face-first. When he falls, I get a clear view of Connor lying on the ground, his cybernetic arm extended.

"Damn, I'm thirsty, how 'bout you?" he quips.

I sigh in relief and get up. I walk over to the switchblade, grab it, snap it shut, and pocket it. "What the hell was that!?"

Conner gets up. "You like that, huh? I made it myself. I call it a Texas chili pepper bullet. When the bullet enters the body, it explodes. Causes a little EMP. With all his cybernetics, I figured three should do it. It was in the clip that fell earlier."

"Wait — so you had those with you the whole time? We fought the bounty hunters, hitmen, gang-bangers, and everything else, and you had those things the whole time!?" I yell.

"Hey, they're expensive to make, and I wanted to save 'em for the big guns! How about a 'Thanks, Connor, for saving my ass!'? 'Thanks, Connor, for not getting my head ripped off! Thanks Connor for getting me to where I need to go!'" he yells back at me.

"Thanks! Now can we get the fuck outta here?" I say more calmly.

"You're welcome, Ren! Damn, you fuckin' Yankees are so ungrateful."

"I'm from fucking Dallas!" I yell.

"Whatever. It don't matter. Now let's go!"

Connor and I make our way to the maglev train station. He points at the ticket booth. "There ya go."

"Not coming?" I ask, looking at him.

He shakes his head. "Nope. I got too many enemies in New Mexico, and thanks you, everywhere else in the Kudo territories too."

"What are you going to do?" I asked him.

"I'll head up north to Tri-State City. Tell my ladies I'm chasing after some big-money bounty. Once there, I'll just lie low till all this shit blows over." He puts his hand out to me. "Just remember what's mine once you're back home."

I take his hand and shake. "Don't worry, a deal's a deal."

We part ways, and I walk over to the ticket booth and buy a ticket for New Ella. Once aboard the train, I take my seat and sigh a great sigh of relief, relaxing, knowing that I'm almost home. I reach into my pocket for my phone and call Rufus. It rings once before he answers. "Go ahead."

"I should be in New Ella in three hours," I tell him.

"Good, I'll let the team know you're on the way. Call me when you get there — and Ren?"

"Yeah?"

"Good job." Rufus hangs up.

I feel the train lift from the track and rocket out of the station. The three hours fly by, both literally and figuratively, and I'm already in New Ella. I feel the train lower to the track, get up from my seat, and exit to the crowded station. Reach into my pocket to call Rufus. Before I can make the phone call, though, there's the sound of gunfire followed by the crack-crack of hypersonic bullets flying pass me. I look around to see what the source is, and thirty or forty yards away I see a figure in a black ski mask, black jeans, and a black long-sleeved shirt. Another fucking amateur, hoping to make the big score... but I'm out of ammo, and now I don't have Connor to back me up. I make a break for it, feeling the bullets fly pass me faster than their own sound as people scatter away, each gunshot making it easier for me to escape.

I duck into an old warehouse, still dodging bullets, turn the corner, and hide behind the doorway. I take out my knife and click it open, waiting for the genius to appear. The moment I see him, I tackle him to the ground. Before I can stab him, he kicks me off. We both spring to our feet and run towards each other; a half-second later my blade's against his neck, and the muzzle of his gun is pressed against my head.

"You fucking killed my dad!" the masked man shrieks, his voice breaking on the last word.

"You're gonna have to be more specific," I begin, but trial off, because I think I recognize the voice. Knowing there's a look of surprise on my face, I lift my other hand and peel off my assailant's mask. My eyes go wide when I see that it's Miles, Vince's son. "Kid, how did you find me? And what the hell are you doing here?"

"College is expensive," he snarls.

"So you became a goddamn bounty hunter?"

"I'm killing three birds with one stone today, Uncle Dyce. I pay for college, take care of my mom and sister, and kill the bastard who killed my father. I saw your profile on the bounty billboards. Even saw the video of you fucking killing my dad!" he screams as tears stream down his face. "Why, Uncle Dyce?" he demands, tears still streaming, the hand holding the gun trembling.

"How did you find me?"

"I may be a new hunter," he grates, "but I'm not stupid. I know Compton is where people go to disappear, so I started there first. The cops rarely go to Compton, and bounties never hit their radar. I saw you talking to that cowboy asshole. I overheard you two talking about heading to New Ella. So I just followed you, waiting for the right time. When you got to Selbia, I saw you deal with the huge guy. I got on the train and crossed my fingers, hope you'd get on that same train and that the big guy didn't kill you. When I saw you get on the train, it was like Christmas, and here we are now. So why did you kill my father?"

I sigh and just look at him. "Go home, Miles."

"Fuck you! You were practically family! Why!?"

I sigh once more, shaking my head. "Your dad was required collateral damage, that's all. Orders are orders. It was just another job. I'm sorry, I really am."

"Just another job!? Fuck you!" he shouts in anger, and pulls the trigger multiple times. All we hear is the gun dry-firing. He's out.

"I'm so sorry, Miles," I say with a tear in my eye, as I slit the throat of someone I consider family. If I don't kill him now, he'll never stop hunting me until I do. It's best this way.

Miles grabs his neck the moment his throat is slit. He collapses, gasping for air as he gurgles on his own blood. In an act of mercy, I reach down, digging in his pockets, and pull out a full magazine. I grab his gun, load it, and fire two rounds into his head, killing him instantly.

I sigh and put the 3-D printed Glock in my pocket, in case I need it later. Then I call Rufus. "Hey, I'm here. I need you to track my phone and give the location to the extraction team. Oh, and one more thing. Conner, one of our regular hunters — we owe him a Series 2. He got me here in one piece."

"I'll handle it. We have your location. Give the team about five minutes, and they'll pick you up."


*****



It's more like ten minutes, but soon enough, the team and I are together. "Rufus sent us," the team lead, Becker, tells me as we shake hands.

"Good. Let's get me the hell out of here."

He glances at Miles' body, then at me. "Who's that?"

"My godson," I whisper.

I look down at the young man's still body and smile a bit, remembering the wonderful times I had with him, Vince, Michelle, and Mina. Then I store all that away in a little box in the back of my mind for later inspection.

Becker looks at me, brow furrowed. "Sir? Did you say he was your—"

"I said he was collateral damage. Just part of the job. Now c'mon. Let's get the hell out of here."



THE END


2020 Robert Vaughn

Bio: Robert Vaughn was born and raised in Houston, Texas. In 2009, he graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University with a degree in Television and Radio Broadcasting. When he is not educating himself on the latest political news or writing, he is normally in the gym or being a total nerd with video games, tabletop role-playing games or something sci-fi related. Robert Vaughn has published works with the Middletown, Pennsylvania publishing house , The Paragon Press. As well as the Greenville University publication, The Scriblerus.

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