Picking up in a new scene that follows immediately where I left off last time…
As the shuttle passed over the vast emptiness of the lunar desert, Akira decided to look up just who the man in the portrait had been. E was soon sifting through a particularly boring biographical entry, informing er that the man had lived altogether forever ago, and had written some book about money. Well, no wonder the obscenely wealthy wanted his picture!
The buyer, like so many who wanted to buy illegally gotten goods, lived in the City of Darkness, the most massive of the domed cities on the moon, located in a deep crater on the dark side of the moon, using the natural walls of the crater to reduce the amount of dome they had needed to build. Because the crater was so particularly deep, the lower levels of the city never saw natural light, a condition that suited the less cooth segments of the criminal world very well indeed. As e liked to think of erself as the most cooth of criminals, Akira detested the City of Darkness, and particularly detested the lower levels of it. (Akira was also not entirely certain that “cooth” was a word by itself, as it quickly started to sound ridiculous after being said one or two times.)
Naturally, the meeting place where e would be handing over the painting to er buyer was on the lower levels. Not, thankfully, on the lowest level, but in the lowest quarter of the city, far lower than Akira would normally venture. E tended to prefer the upper quarter, where there was better chance of escape if something should happen to the dome, and less chance of being crushed by falling debris if something happened to the city itself.
The hallway outside the meeting place demonstrated just what the criminal element often liked about the lower levels of the city: the hall was lit by five massive bulbs, three of which were out, and one of which was flickering. If that one steady light went out…Akira didn’t like to think about it.
The meeting was in the back room of a particularly seedy tavern. As always, in a joint that classless, it was about half-full, most of its patrons already completely stinking drunk. The patrons were also all obviously quite poor. Akira went over to the bar and got the bartender’s eye, but wasn’t quite sure what to ask. E could hardly ask if a rich, unscrupulous man had been by!
The bartender looked Akira over as e was hesitating. “You a man or a woman?” he asked.
“No, I’m not.”
That only made the man look confused. Apparently, everything Akira had heard about the lowest segments of lunar society was true. Eventually, the bartender shook his head. “You want a drink?”
Akira shook er head. In a nicer establishment, e would gladly have bought a drink to grease wheels. This place was far too unhygienic for that. “I’m looking for someone.”
An eyebrow was raised. “The ghost?”
Akira nodded slowly. Thankfully, the way the man had phrased the question made it unclear if e was admitting to being the infamous art thief, the Ghost, or if e was looking for said thief. One could never be too careful. Security drones were everywhere. Either way, of course, because this jackass had merely mentioned er criminal nickname, any drones or informants in the joint would now be 100% focused on er. Well, fine. Watching someone and catching them were very different things.
There was a long, pregnant pause, as if the bartender expected Akira to say something in addition to nodding. Then the man jerked his head towards a door behind the bar. “He’s waiting for you.”
Akira made er way around behind the bar and opened the door the bartender had indicated. Sure enough, er buyer was waiting there, looking impatient. “It took you long enough!” the man exclaimed, as soon as the door was shut. “And where is my painting?!”
“Calm down,” Akira sighed, shaking er head. “Don’t shout so much; people will hear and want a piece of the deal. I have your painting right here.” E removed the painting from the fourth dimensional pocket, and laid it on the table between them. “Now, the rest of my payment?”
“Let me check that this is the real thing,” the buyer insisted, picking up the painting and inspecting it, front and back, a ludicrous gesture from a man with no knowledge of art. Signan Platz owned half the factories that dotted the landscape of the dark side of the moon, and the ruins of his workers swarmed the lower levels of its cities in such numbers that Akira was surprised Platz wasn’t afraid to be seen in public, lest a mob of them attack and kill him in a savage expression of frontier justice.
Eventually, Platz was satisfied, and tossed a dozen or so credit sticks onto the table. Akira gathered them up quickly, and checked their contents. The amount was precisely correct to the last decimal point.
“Did you kill that old fool to get this?” Platz asked.
“I don’t work that way,” Akira said, shaking er head. “I pride myself in leaving my victims unaware they’ve been robbed for months.”
“That’s not what I heard…” A callous laugh followed the words, setting Akira’s teeth on edge.
“When things go awry, I have sometimes had no choice but to leave a trail of corpses in my wake, but that is never my plan going in.”
“Pity.” Platz shrugged. “I’ll have to hire someone else to deal with him, then.”
Oh, lovely. Now e was an accessory to murder. Because er rap sheet really needed something extra on it.
Platz was soon leaving the bar by the back door. Akira waited until he was gone, then switched er bodysuit from its “disguise” setting to its “invisible” setting, and slipped out the door after him. Initially, er plan had been simply to leave first the bar and then the city, but now e was curious. E wanted to know just why this man wanted such a boring painting so badly. No matter how much the man in the painting had written about the amassing of obscene wealth, it didn’t make sense that these people would want to hang his unpleasant portrait on the wall. Especially not if they had to spend this kind of money to do so. Something was just wrong.
And if something was that wrong, Akira wanted to know what it was. There were many reasons for this, but most of them boiled down to er inquisitive and even nosy nature. But there was also the very real fact that if something was wrong, it might become hazardous, and if there was anything Akira wanted to know about in advance, it was something that might cause er harm.
So Akira silently followed Platz through the dim city streets, gliding unseen past countless cameras and security drones. The people were less unaware of er: it was easier to fool an electronic eye than a human one. They didn’t see er, nor some cartoony outline of er, but they were dimly aware of some shimmering something passing by, as if a heat mirage was moving down the street. Most of them were the lunar poor, so they really didn’t care. They were much too busy either begging Platz for money or spitting curses at him to wonder about the patch of insubstantial air following him.
To Akira’s surprise, they didn’t head to the residential district, but to the industrial zone, and one of Platz’s factories there. Fortunately, the factory had a spiral moving walkway to get to the top, rather than a lift: if there was one place er “invisible” setting was bound to get er caught, it was in a lift, particularly one with only one other person in it. Though Platz seemed too lost in his own thoughts to have noticed er even if e was completely visible anyway: he walked right past people attempting to speak to him—even one of his foremen—without seeming to register them at all.
Eventually, he fetched up at a brightly lit meeting room, where an entire conference awaited him. Every person sitting around the conference table—and it was at full capacity, every seat filled with a grotesquely rich individual—wore robes of black velvet with collars woven of pure gold. (All of Akira’s detectors were going on full overload at all the gold and other valuable trinkets in that room. E was very glad e had set them all to silent. Even so, e kept one hand over er wrist, trying to make sure nothing of those alerts seeped out to where they might alert these rich conspirators.)
“Took you long enough,” one of them sneered. “Let me guess, that’s another pathetic copy.”
“No,” Platz replied with a sinister smile and a sickeningly proud-of-himself look in his eyes, “this is the holy portrait. The real thing.” He placed the painting on a waiting golden easel. “Feast your eyes on the proof that I have seized the presidency.”
Several of the men rose and went over to examine the painting, a few of them with magnifying lenses, and even one with a pocket microscope. One by one, they sat down again, murmuring their agreement that it was the genuine article.
“If we are in agreement, I would like to begin this long-overdue meeting,” Platz said, taking a seat at the head of the table. “Now that I am President of the Society of True Laissez Faires, I am finally going to start steering us in the one true direction.”
Numerous heads around the conference table nodded assent, and Platz started a slide show on the wall. He must have been planning this for quite some time. The first dozen or so slides were boring introductory material, including at least three on Platz himself and all his financial victories. Surely everyone in the room already knew all of this information (except Akira, who knew only the most well publicized parts of it), but the people around the table paid rapt attention regardless.
Eventually, Platz moved on and reached the meat of his presentation. “As you know, our ancestors first came to the dark side of the moon in order to carry out the divine orders of the one true god’s messenger,” a gesture towards the painting indicated who Platz meant by this absurd statement, “and at first they were free to act unimpeded by governments and their interference in holy finance.” He shook his head with a bitter solemnity. “Alas, government eventually extended its reach even to the dark side of the moon, and they have begun imposing their tyrannical will upon us. But no more!” Platz slammed his fist down on the table. “Our former president refused to act out against the government, but I will not follow his weak and cowardly example. Our security guards have more experience and better weapons than the government’s peacekeeping forces, and we have far more security drones than they could ever dream of having.”
“They haven’t any,” one of the women around the table chortled. She was an old hag now, but Akira could see she was once at least moderately attractive. “They buy all their security drones from me. And I always build an override code into my robots. At the press of a button, they all revert to my exclusive control.”
“I knew I could count on you,” Platz said, honoring her with a smile. “Then we are in agreement? We take over from the government by force if it will not capitulate.”
“Don’t begin your reign with a break from procedure.” The words were spoken in a creaking voice that emerged from a man so old that he looked more like a mummy than a living person. “Put it to the vote. Follow the protocol.”
Platz scowled, but duly asked for a show of hands in favor of his foul plot. Every one of the wealthy bastards sitting at the table raised a hand. The video camera Akira kept on er headset was recording all of it, but e wasn’t sure there was much point to it. If these people really did have the power to take over from the government, then who could ever arrest them?
“I do wonder, though,” a middle-aged woman wearing diamonds the size of her eyes said, as she lowered her hand. “Do you plan a simple coup, or are you going to wait until they provoke us? I feel as though the latter might be better public relations with the other colonies, to say nothing of the miserable sods still living on Earth.”
Platz nodded. “Oh, don’t you worry. I will give them ample time to cooperate with us peaceably. But the first time the attempt to suppress our holy mission with interfering laws, we will wipe them out!”
His exclamation met with applause.
“I have been studying the holy texts,” Platz said, producing the remains of a book. It looked like it had once been a leather-bound Victorian affair, what was left of its surface mottled with gold and other decorative fripperies that served no function on a book. “And I see nothing to forbid us from acting in our best interests as we have discussed before. But we must act as one, or it will destroy us all.” The others nodded solemnly, and Platz continued. “In one week’s time, we will all make the announcement, then, that we will no longer be paying our employees. They get time in our lovely, sparkling-clean factories, and we give them the opportunity to make our products. On top of that, we even feed them lunch. That is much more payment than they need.”
Most of the people at the table cheered this announcement, even as it made Akira’s stomach churn. However, the youngest person at the table—an androgynous and attractive person, mid-twenties at most—raised a timid hand. “But, Mr. President,” the young person said, in an alto voice, “won’t the people rise up against us if we refuse to pay them?”
“Let them rise! We have all the weapons!”
“But who will run our factories if we kill the workers?” the youth objected. “Robots are too costly. We should at least provide housing for the workers if we aren’t going to pay them. Otherwise they’ll either rise up or simply quit.”
Murmurs ran around the table, some agreeing, some disagreeing. “I suppose you may have a point, Tinnock,” Platz sighed. “Perhaps we need to be more subtle about it.” He smiled at his compatriots. “We are already renting them their homes. We simply need to adjust their rents to match their paychecks. They won’t even notice.”
“Once and for all, we will prove his holy superiority over the anti-Smith!” Platz roared, and the slide show moved on to a last slide, showing a grainy, black and white photograph of an older man with a massively bushy beard. “The workers will obediently and gratefully accept their destined position as our unpaid labor, and our holy work will begin!”
As the cheering continued to a fever pitch and the people at the conference table all rose to gather around Platz in a throng, Akira took the risk of opening the door and slipping out of the room while they were distracted.
As e passed, still invisible, out of the office building and into a plaza filled with the lunar poor, Akira’s stomach churned. These people were already used up and spat out, broken and beaten, and now they were to be treated as slaves, too?
Even a thief couldn’t stand for that. These people worked themselves to death for nothing as it was.
Akira stepped into an alleyway and reprogrammed er disguise. When it finished churning, the image projected around er was no longer a slight recalculation of er own features, but the best recreation e could provide of the man in that last slide, who Platz seemed to view as the antithesis of his cult’s divine messenger. Who else to blame for what Akira was about to do?
E walked out of the alley again and found a group of the lunar poor who had gathered in front of the building. Once e had their attention, Akira began speaking to them, calmly, confidently, convincingly. Explaining how the bosses running this colony had been abusing them all their lives. How the abuse was about to get worse.
How it was time for a revolution.
Okay, so my thoughts on this first Writing Prompt experiment:
- I kind of failed to meet the criteria of the prompt, as the fighting against the evil and dangerous cult is left for after the story is over. This is just the prologue, the matter leading up to the hook in Act 1 of a movie, the opening of the game where you’re still badass before Death takes away all of Alucard’s equpiment, etc. But this is just me trying to get my hand back in at writing fiction, so I don’t see anything wrong with that.
- This is the first time I’ve written the POV of a nonbinary or agender character, and while I think it mostly worked all right (with a few spotty exceptions where I was definitely trending more towards something gendered) I’m not really happy with the e/er pronouns I decided to go with. They looked all right wherever it was I saw them before (like I said, I think it was in a game, but I’m not sure), but trying to write with them was really awkward. Next time I have a character like this, I’ll pick different pronouns. (But not they/them, because it always makes me uncomfortable to use a plural pronoun as a singular, and it sets off the spell checker every single time. (English really does suck at this.))
- My characterization was almost non-existent, and Akira was way too perfect at handling absolutely freaking everything. (Though, as I said, this is the opening of the story — or would be if there was going to be a full story — and without that magic equipment that allowed disguise, invisibility and carrying a painting around without being spotted carrying it, Akira would be much less perfect at handling things. And if this was something full length, Akira would surely lose that equipment promptly.) I’m not worried about it, because this was just an exercise, but it’s definitely something I need to watch out for in the future.
- I feel like the real star of the story was this weird, Industrial Britain on the moon world I set up. Nothing particularly special about it, really, but the combination of Victorian callousness towards factory workers with shiny-future domed cities felt like one you don’t see very often.