Welcome to Gravitas

Thanks for visiting this site! Gravitas is an ongoing fiction blog in which I will be posting new chapters to an ever-unfolding narrative about a science fiction world on the brink of it's destruction. Because each chapter will be released individually, they have a distinctly episodic feel to them as opposed to how most chapter-books tend to flow in a continuous stream. I hope to bring a relatively different sort of science fiction experience that combines compelling narrative and interesting characters with striking visuals and a unique feel. If that sounds like your sort of thing, then I would be thrilled to have you along for the ride!

Table of Contents


Chapter 8: Maiya's Company
Chapter 9: A Princess and a Spy
Chapter 10: Fredryko's Airship
Chapter 11: Kento's Leadership
Chapter 12: A Princess and an Envoy
Chapter 13: Fredryko's Recruit
Chapter 14: Isame's Strategy
Chapter 15: A Plaza in Flames
Chapter 16: Enter the Saviors
Chapter 17: Gart's Tenacity
Chapter 18: The Emperor's Secret

Chapter 7: What is Sentience?

Maq’s glowing eyes remain fixed on the projection before him. A wide-eyed news anchor reports on a recent altercation involving an experimental android and four police officers, an incident involving Maq. Maq feels a funny sensation, like it’s somehow existing outside of its shell right now. The anchor’s words echo around it, pounding through to its core. The beating is so hard and the discomfort so strong that Maq withdraws from reality. It’s just it and the holoscreen.
 “The officers involved have sustained a variety of injuries and are now getting treatment at a local hospital,” she recites in a matter of fact tone that makes Maq feel even worse about the report. It’s astounded that a flesh and blood being can somehow sound colder than one made of metal and wires. “It’s currently unclear as to just how this street brawl started. From the footage we’ve collected, it appears as though the officers intended to detain the Synthetic prototype known as Maq and his bodyguard who has been identified as Gorson Rels, a nan under the employ of the Sundance Corporation.”
Maq crosses its arms in front of its chest. It’s changed into a soft long sleeve with the iconic Sundance logo positioned right beneath the collar. It slides its thumbs against the welcoming fabric, taking comfort in the pulsations that shoot up through its fingers. Gorson watches the mechanical boy closely as the broadcast shifts over to a replay of the fight between them and the officers. Maq trembles at the sight of its own lethal precision. Deydrick paces around at the back of the room issuing commands to one of his lawyers.
“Tell them that we demand a formal and very public apology,” he orders. He’s silent for a moment before saying, “I don’t care if they do or do not consider Maq to be a living thing, this still has lawsuit written all over it.”
Werlen remains silent as he stands still at the back corner of a black leather sofa. He types away on his comm, pausing every now and then to peek up and observe Maq’s behavior. He’s fascinated by how the thing fidgets like a real teenager facing the consequences of their actions. Maq can’t cry, but Gorson can tell how the little machine is feeling. He notes the subtle twitching of the corners of its mouth and the quick fluttering of its eyelids.
He places a firm hand on Maq’s shoulder and says, “How about we turn this off now, Maqquew?”
Maq shakes its head. The clip has been played numerous times by this point, but on every loop, a new piece of information gets added to the mix. It’s this promise of new content that keeps Maq hooked on the broadcast. That and the fact that it still can’t process the sight of it brutalizing all of those people. It never observes how fiercely Gorson fought as well, only how easily it inflicted injuries upon its attackers.
“Come on, no good comes of reliving it…” Gorson pleads.
“I need to see this,” Maq whimpers.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Gorson argues, giving Maq’s shoulder a squeeze. “I told you to fight back.”
“It was my choice though.” Werlen has to strain his ears to hear Maq’s metallic whispering. “This is what they were afraid of wasn’t it. I didn’t even feel bad when I did it.”
“But you do now don’t you?” Gorson offers.
Maq shrugs in reply.
“I can tell you do.”
Werlen takes a break from his typing to watch as Gorson hugs Maq from behind and holds him steady.
“Let’s stop punishing ourselves about this, yeah?” Gorson suggests again.
“Wait,” Maq gasps.
The newscast switches over to a shot of the Keenan pavilion where a horde of reporters and photographers wait like predatory hounds for Syra and her cohort to exit the building. 

Syra steps out into view of the cameras. The rest of the committee is with her, but they remain a few steps behind, exposing her fully to the media. Deep creases beneath her eyes make her look tired. She stands before the reporters as they converge in on her and shout over one another. She throws her hands up into the air and brings her gaze to the ground. As though she cast a spell on them, the mass of people actually shut up at her silent command. Once she lifts her face back up, she immediately points to one of the people in the crowd who wastes no time in charging up before her with an amplifier held out.
“Miss Bensten,” the plucky young wonan begins, “What are your thoughts on the incident between Sundance’s Synthetic and the police?”
“I’ve only just barely had time to review the footage myself,” Syra explains. “I’ll need further time with it before drawing any definitive conclusions. On one hand though, I can say that it is exactly this kind of destructive capability that motivated this committee to reject Deydrick’s proposal to move forward with Sundance’s Project Eidan. At the risk of contradicting this statement, I would also say that it appeared to me as though Maq and his protector might have been provoked by our nen and wonen in uniform. I checked Deydrick’s paperwork and confirmed that he did clear the transport of his Synthetic prototype with the station so I think they owe us all an explanation for putting innocents at risk. Unfortunately, I have not had the time to assess the situation enough to comment further right now.”
At this dismissal, a flood of voices call out to her, but she turns her back to the crowd and waves her entourage back into the building.

                Maq shakes at the sight of Syra on the screen and the sound of her calm voice coming through the speakers. Gorson hangs onto it while leaning around flipping off the projector. The broadcast flickers away into thin air, leaving Maq to stare at a tan wall.
                “That’s enough of that, now,” Gorson announces, leading Maq over to the sofa. “Just take a seat for a moment, and try to relax, alright.” He watches as Maq obediently sinks into the cushions.
                “Gorson’s right, it’ll all be okay,” Deydrick interjects as he hangs up from his call and strolls over to them. He takes a knee in front of Maq and holds its hands as he continues, “You didn’t do anything wrong, you hear me?”
                Maq doesn’t meet its “father’s” gaze, it can’t. All it can do is nod reluctantly.
                “I mean it, kiddo,” Deydrick insists. “I just got off the comm with someone who’s going to take care of this for us. Those officers broke the law when they wrongfully pulled you over and then they broke a few more when they assaulted you. You did the right thing in keeping Gorson, Tompton, and yourself safe.”
                “They’re hurt though…” Maq’s tone is as sweet as a child’s. It’s enough to make Werlen stuff his comm into his pant pocket.
                “Sometimes that happens, Maq,” Deydrick consoles him.
“You didn’t mean to, they gave us no choice,” Gorson adds. “I hurt some of them too, did I do something wrong?”
Maq shakes his head and looks up as he replies, “You were just protecting me.”
“And you were protecting me. That’s what family does, Maq.”
The machine nods in apparent understanding and acceptance, though there’s no way for anyone in the room to truly know whether Maq grasps what they’re saying. It’s astoundingly like teaching a lesson to a boy.
“How about you and Gorson head to the lab and run a diagnostic, make sure everything’s in order,” Deydrick suggests, letting go of one of Maq’s hands to give it a pat on the knee.
“Okay,” the machine agrees, more out of obedience than genuine enthusiasm for the idea.
“That’s my boy.”
Deydrick rises to his feet and pulls Maq up into an enveloping hug. Maq looks to Gorson who then guides it out of the room. Doctor Limoy looks on as his “boy” leaves, worry creasing his brow.

Werlen observes in silence, unsure of exactly what he’s bearing witness to. Maq is so much more than he expected. He’s unsure of whether this is a good thing though. Such an independent and fragile being isn’t quite what he needs right now, but he’s confident Deydrick can come through for him.
“He’s really quite remarkable,” Werlen comments with his hands folded in front of him.
Deydrick spins around, forgetting that he’s not alone. “Yes, he is my pride and joy.”
“Do you really think of him as your son?” Werlen’s tone is flat. His inflection is more of academic interest rather than judgement.
Deydrick looks back to the doorway as though he can still see Maq there and answers, “Yes.” A sinking feeling drops through his chest and he twists his head back around. “I mean, I’m not crazy, I know that I can’t bring my boy back from the dead. What I mean is that Maq is also my son. And there’s some of Kyren in him too…”
“I’m not judging you, Doctor,” Werlen stops him. “It seems to me that there’s some of Kyren in all the technology that you’ve developed. Thanks to you, this is the age of near-flawless navigation systems. There are countless sons and daughters who have been spared from tragic shuttle accidents like the one that took your son. There’s no shame in stating that he’s inspired the work you’ve done and it’s more than okay that Maq is the culmination of how you’ve decided to honor Kyren’s memory.”
Doctor Limoy’s lungs tighten and his head starts to spin. The truth is on the tip of his tongue, but he can’t bring himself to spit it out. “I have something to show you before you excuse me from the mad scientist label.”
Deydrick motions for the agent to follow him out through the doorway at the other end of the room. He marches forward, his heart beating in his chest. Very few people know the truth about Project Eidan and he’s not sure how Agent Myurk will take it.
“Project Eidan isn’t exactly what people might think,” he starts to explain as he leads Werlen down a light blue hallway.
“How’s that?” Werlen pries.
“It’ll be easier to show you than to tell you, I think. I understand that I would have eventually needed to make the truth public, but until we had greater promise of the project being allowed to move forward, I couldn’t risk the judgement that would inevitably arise from our proprietary … technique.”
“The suspense is killing me, Doctor,” Werlen teases, a thin smirk emerging.
“All I ask is that you have an open mind.”
“That’s why I’m here,” Werlen assures him.
Deydrick’s throat becomes dry and scratchy and he thinks that his shoes click too loudly against the white tile floor. The world suddenly seems to be closing in around him and he’s not sure if he’s ready to share his truth with Werlen. They did just meet after all, but this is his last chance to make his swansong a global phenomenon. The pair comes to a stop before a pair of sliding glass doors barring entry to a sparkling green and chrome lab.
“Here we are,” Deydrick sighs.
“Here we are,” Werlen repeats, trying to hide the nervous anticipation in his voice.
With shaking hands, Deydrick lifts his ID badge up to the scanner. The device chirps and the doors part ways with a swish. They step inside and Werlen eyes the lab. Its walls are lined with drawers making it look a little bit like an overly colorful morgue. He turns his attention to the medical table in the room’s center where a naked shell lays lifelessly. It has a feminine build though Werlen notes that the thing has no private parts. There’s just a hip piece that fills out its midsection. Werlen finds this to be an interesting design decision, but remembers that Deydrick was adamant that his vision was not for Synthetics to become mere sex-bots. He supposes that this is one way of guaranteeing that will never happen.
“Is she totally out of commission?” Werlen inquires.
“Yes, she’s not really even a ‘she’ yet. She’s just a shell of one waiting to be filled,” Deydrick explains. “Haiben 1337,” he commands the thing.
The machination’s eyes pop open. “Diagnostic program online,” it states in a voice that’s distinctly female.
 “Configuration 3,” Deydrick instructs.
The shell brings itself to a seated position. Werlen marvels at how fluidly it moves and how its snow-white, shoulder-length hair flows just like the real thing. 
“Each shell is equipped with a set of diagnostic programming,” Deydrick starts. “It doesn’t do much. It mostly just allows us to ensure that the shell is functional and ready for a persona. Once installed, the persona will overwrite all of this programming.”
“Makes sense. Why Haiben?”
“It seemed like a fitting reference to the myth. Are you familiar with it?”
“Only in that I know Haiben was a magical fruit of some kind. I was never much for the tales of old,” Werlen answers.
“The Hands of Chaos presented Haiben, a glorious fruit to the Illemuins. They ate from it with delight not knowing that it would change them. They began to feel a strange calling to the sea and an intense craving for that majestic fruit. Eventually it changed them into the beings we now know as Fendaren. Those that did not eat from that fruit later evolved into Hyunans and the rest is history or legend, I suppose. I was always a bit of a mythology nerd, so I thought it quite clever to have the diagnostic program respond to this word. This program is the fruit that will eventually allow them to be born anew, born as something greater, more sophisticated. Right now, they are innocent and docile like the Illemuins, though far less conscious, of course.”
“That’s some deep stuff, Doctor.”
“Indeed,” Deydrick agrees, stroking the shell’s hair.
“What is it that makes the personas work?” Werlen attempts to get Deydrick back on topic. “What makes them so lifelike?”
“Well…” Deydrick pulls himself away from the table and moves over to a holomonitor. He makes a few taps on the projected interface until he’s opened a folder of files with names on them. “These are some of our personas. They are the true essence of Project Eidan. The personas are the breath of life that makes a shell into a Synthetic. They are the heart, mind, and soul, of a Synthetic. They also aren’t really AIs like everyone assumes.”
“What do you mean?” It’s Werlen’s turn to feel his heart beating in his chest. He wonders what the personas could possibly if they aren’t some kind of software package.
Deydrick’s fists clench and his breathing tightens. This is it, this is where he’ll have to bare all or lose it all. He taps on one of the files. It expands to take up a larger portion of the screen and then a number of smaller files spider outward from it with lines connecting them at the center.
 “Personas like Maq’s are compiled from the memories of Hyunans. They are carefully arranged and deposited into a shell’s central processing matrix. There’s a little bit of software built in to allow the persona to have full control over its shell as well as to run some unconscious subroutines, but other than that, Synthetics are largely defined by their very Hyunan experiences.”
Werlen’s hands drop to his sides and he stumbles back a little. “Wait, you said that there’s some of Kyren in Maq…”
“Yes, before I buried my son, I extracted some of Kyren’s memories. Those became the basis for Maq. They’re still not the same, of course. Maq isn’t weighed down by any of the troubles that Kyren had, he only got the best and brightest memories my son could offer. The gaps were filled in using memories from paid participants. There were some things we needed to round out the persona. The martial arts didn’t come from Kyren either, but they seemed like a good idea to include.”
Werlen’s mouth hangs open for a moment, words failing to fill it.
“Earlier in my career, I tinkered a great deal with artificial intelligence. It became something of an obsession of mine. But no matter how crafty I got, there was never anything really intelligent about them. Every AI I made was cold and calculating. Some of them could understand Hyunan emotions, but they couldn’t feel them, even when given bodies that had sensory receptors. It was in my son’s last moments that I realized that I realized intelligence, true intelligence, comes from Hyunan experiences. When he died, project Eidan was born.”
“How did you extract the memories?”
“We’ve been developing experimental machines to copy memories into data. The process can be performed on anyone either living or recently deceased. The original intent was to use it for things like creating implants for those suffering from elderly diseases that cause memory distortion or to construct video montages for people’s funerals so that the guests can literally see the highlights of the deceased’s life flash before them. Both of those concepts are obviously still in development.”
“This is all very heavy,” Werlen huffs.
“Has your interest in our project changed then?”
“No, not at all. Your work is incredible. Perhaps this is even better than I’d hoped for.”
Deydrick crosses his arms and squares off to the agent. “What are you hoping for?”
Werlen shifts uncomfortably before replying. “Now it’s my turn to ask you to keep an open mind.”
“Okay,” Deydrick agrees with an uneasy edge in his tone.
“There’s a storm coming… I’d like to get in front of it.”
“That’s a little cryptic isn’t it?”
“Much of why I’m here is highly classified.”
Deydrick gives the agent a shrug and raises his eyebrows expectantly.
“There’s good reason to believe that war will soon break out with Klenmalruna and perhaps Suklarana as well,” Werlen continues.
“And you think you can assemble a small army of my Synthetics…” Deydrick interjects.
“Hey, listen. You want to prove to the world that Synthetics can be our protectors? Well this is your chance. You partner with me on this and the world will see your work the same way you do. If you agree to operationalize all fifty of your shells as agents for us, I will guarantee that Project Eidan will get approval to proceed to the full extent that you have envisioned it. You will also receive compensation for the overhead of delivering these resources to us.”
A dead silence hangs in the air as Deydrick’s mind reels with the proposition. This is simultaneously the best offer he could hope for and the worst nightmare he could dream up.
“They were never designed for this kind of use,” he protests.
“I understand that. How fast could your technicians design more combative personas?”
“I’m not sure we have the proper memory files to even construct more than a few.”
Werlen nods. “What if we could provide you with a library of experiences from some of the most highly trained agents in our ranks and most loyal soldiers in our army?”
“Then I suppose we could make something work,” Deydrick guesses, no longer sure what he’s really doing. He feels trapped, like this is his only option, which of course, it is, though I’d rather he abandon this fool’s project entirely.
“Do we have an accord then?”
Deydrick pauses to inhale sharply. “We do.”
Werlen breaks into a full grin and thrusts his hand out to Deydrick. The doctor takes it and gives it an unsteady shake.
“A word of warning,” Deydrick breaks in as he releases his grip, “Once imprinted, it’s impossible to reprogram a shell with a new or modified persona. I specifically designed the Synthetic architecture to prohibit this.”
“Understood. Do you happen to have any shells that have not yet undergone the redesign?”
Deydrick nods and leads them over to one of the drawers. He pops it open to reveal a slab with a far more Hyunan-looking male shell lying unconscious. This one has dark skin, curly hair shaped into miniature dreadlocks, and a strong jaw. Excepting its featureless private region, it could very easily be mistaken for a Hyunan male.
“Amazing,” Werlen comments.
“We have five that we still need to reshape.”
“Save them,” Werlen requests. “Would it be possible for them to receive personas that are almost entirely shaped by the exact memories of some of our most trusted agents? It would be preferable for them to even be unaware of their own nature if that’s possible.”
“We’d have to do a little bit of work and take care in the process, but yes, why?”
“Just trust me on this one, if you would.”
Deydrick feels as though he might throw up, but replies with “Fine.”
He knows he’s going against all of his ideals on this one, but he’s in too deep now. Whatever the agent wants, the agent will get. He just hopes that this won’t destroy his vision for the Synthetics. He also fears that this decision will destroy his relationship with Maq. His heart breaks at knowing he’s effectively selling off the brothers and sisters he promised it would have.

He has no understanding of the multitude of ripples he has just unleashed upon this world. He can’t even imagine how his vision of salvation may very well contribute to this world’s damnation.

Chapter 6: What is Life?

Maq and Gorson’s shuttle scoots along the main road away from the Keenan Pavillion and merges onto the Limrin Freeway. Its automated guiding system makes the process look effortless. Watching this vehicle slide into traffic is like watching a droplet of water fall into a stream. In a way, I do find it beautiful. Such coordination and grace serves as a stark contrast to the chaos that is life on this planet. Glossy shuttles slide along the egg-white roadway. They flow in one harmonious mass, broken only by vehicles slipping out of line into one of the tributary roads that branch off of the freeway. All around, towering buildings stand proud, the light of the evening sun beating down on them with an orange brilliance. Within the shuttle cabin, Maq sits in exhausted silence. As strange as one might find it, this machine is in fact tired. Its processes are running slowly and its mind is a jumbled matrix of thoughts and sensations. The gentle ebb and flow of the ride soothes it a little.
Eventually it tilts its head toward Gorson and asks, “Do you think I’m alive?”
“What do you mean, Maqquew, of course you’re alive.”
“But you didn’t always think so?”
“Why are you asking these things?” Gorson sounds troubled. I can feel worry start to creep up within him.
“Those people back there. I think a lot of them believed I am alive.”
“But not the ones that counted…” Gorson offers.
Maq bows its head and nods. “Not the ones that counted,” it repeats.
“It takes some getting used to is all,” Gorson consoles, placing a hand on Maq’s shoulder. “People don’t understand you yet, but they will.  They just need time, like I needed time.”
“Some of them even want to kill me…” Maq’s voice is whisper-soft. “Did you ever want to kill me?”
Maq’s glowing robot eyes are hard set on his companion. Even though they have no moisture, Gorson can’t help but think they look misty somehow. He thinks perhaps the glow just looks a little hazier inside of the vehcile, but seeing Maq this way still fills him with compassion. He wants to shelter this young thing from all the cruelty the world outside the shuttle has to offer. But he can’t. Such a thing is beyond his power to control. I too feel pity for this machine. It has the mind of a Hyunan and a body that can feel. Even I cannot decide if Deydrick’s creation is an act of indescribable brilliance or inexcusable cruelty. He thought only of his grand vision when he made Maq, never imagining the trauma this thing would face as the only one of its kind in a world that has no need or want for it to exist. And I can see that in mere moments, life is about to get even worse for little Maqquew.
“No, I never wanted to kill you. I simply looked at you as a thing before, a machine, cold and heartless. But I came to understand that you’re no robot or toy. You’re not a simulation of life, you are alive. I never wanted to hurt you, but I was afraid of you.”
“And you’re not now?”
Gorson pauses, contemplating the words he’s about to speak. “I’m not afraid of you, no,” he says, though a little unsteadily.
“Are you afraid of what I am then?” Maq presses. Innocent though it might be, this thing is no fool.
“I do fear the idea of your species and wonder if it is really best for there to be a whole population of Synthetics like you.”
“Why is it okay for me, but not for others?”
“Well you’re different Maq. You’re special because you’ve been able to learn and grow in a safe environment. You get to live with Deydrick who loves you and me who’d do anything to protect you. Some others who come after you may also have those benefits, but it would be impossible for you all to be raised the right way.”
“And you are afraid that without the proper upbringing we’d become like your species.”
“Yes, I do. And believe me, that’s the last thing this world needs. Imagine if we threw you out into the world as you were when you were first made and being greeted by people like the ones you faced today. How do you think that would shape you?”
Maq considers this with care. He tries to imagine his life without Gorson and Deydrick. Who would he be now without their love and guidance to steer him? What would he be like if he didn’t have a safe home to retreat to? “I honestly don’t know…” he admits, all calculations failing to come to any reasonable conclusion.
“Nor do I. That is why Synthetics are not to be taken lightly. Deydrick has designed you to be kind and gentle. You are all the things we’re supposed to be but that makes you vulnerable and sensitive. In a world as cold as this one, I shudder to think of what would become of a species like yours if you were to be thrust into it without a proper guide.”
“I guess I fear that too,” Maq concludes.
“Enough, of this heavy talk, then, what will should we do once we’re home?”
“Can we play Kandorball?” Maq’s face brightens as he asks this.
“We sure can! I think we could both use a few rounds on the court.”
Maq’s usual lightness returns to him. He suddenly gets the feeling that things are normal again. The rejection he and Deydrick suffered still bothers him, but at the end of the day, he gets to go home and be safe.  If only he could make it home without incident…
Maq’s shuttle slips out of the freeway onto one of the branching exit ramps leading down into the city streets. It glides with grace as it slips into a whole new wave of traffic. All seems well to the passengers when suddenly green and orange lights flash all around them. Police shuttles fall upon them from the rear and steer into oncoming traffic in front of them. Maq and Gorson hear Tompton grunt as their shuttle’s collision detection software brings the vehicle to a dead stop. The four police cruisers surround them, cutting off the once smooth flow of traffic. The officers inside, hop out of their vehicle with pistols held high in front of them. The forest green uniforms and silver badges these people wear may be a symbol of order, but today these nen and wonen are here to stir up a little chaos.
“Get out of the vehicle,” They shout while storming towards Maq’s shuttle, the barrels of their guns trained on it.
“Stay in the shuttle,” Gorson orders as he gets up from his seat and makes for the door.
“What’s happening?” Maq demands. He takes hold of Gorson’s wrists while the big nan tries to slide past him. His impulses are firing faster.
“It’ll be okay Maqquew, just stay inside, I’ll take care of this.”
   Maq watches with something akin to fear as both Gorson and Tompton exit the shuttle with their hands in the air. The officers approaching from the front shove Tompton out of their way and train their weapons on Gorson who remains outwardly calm.
“What’s the matter officers?” he asks, sounding innocent enough.
“Where are they?” a lady officer named Leina demands?
“Who?” Gorson stalls.
“The doctor and his monster,” the male officer beside Leina, a nan by the name of Mylen snarls.
“The doctor isn’t with us, Gorson,” responds. “I told Maq to wait in the vehicle. Is there a reason you’re stopping us?”
“Did you think we’d let you just parade your freaky robot through the streets?” an officer named Rensten yells from behind Gorson.
“We had this trip cleared with your office,” Gorson protests, trying to retain his professional demeanor.
“No, you paid off some bureaucrat to sign a pretty little paper for you. I’ll be damned if you can just drive that thing around like some kind of pet,” Leina sneers.
“Bring it out!” Mylen orders, thrusting his gun at Gorson’s face.
“Please, you’re startling people,” Gorson pleads.
Mylen peers around to see the citizens who’ve stepped out of their shuttles to watch the spectacle. Many have half their bodies still inside their vehicles and some cling to their doors. Maq can hear everything happening outside the shuttle. Its impulses tell it to get out as the officers have demanded, but its obedience to Gorson convinces Maq to remain where it is. Gorson remains steady, looking past Mylen’s gun and right into his eyes. Mylen’s middle-aged face contorts at the display of defiance. Without warning, he pulls his arm back and slams the bottom of his pistol’s handle into the side of Gorson’s face. He grunts as he twists downward, placing a hand against the gash that now defiles his left temple.
“Stop!” Maq squeaks as it shuffles out of his seat.
“Hands up!” Kyten, the fourth officer demands. He and Rensten aim their pistols at Maq while Mylen repoints his at Gorson.
Leina saunters over and shoves her blaster in front of Maq’s face. “Let’s get this thing off the streets!” she snarls.
“Please!” Maq’s metallic voice rings out. “I don’t want to die…”
“Shut up!” Leina screams. She shoves the barrel of her gun against its forehead.
“Maq, defend yourself,” Gorson commands.
Without hesitation, Maq grabs Leina by the wrist. Its reflexes are so fast that she doesn’t have time to blow his head to smithereens. By the time she can pull the trigger, Maq has her gun arm pointed toward Kyten’s leg. The beam shoots straight through his thigh, eliciting a pain-filled shriek as he falls to the ground. Maq twists Leina’s arm up and behind her back, cranking it so viciously that she releases a girlish scream and even tears up at the pain. He holds her in front of him as a living shield. Rensten keeps his gun on them, but isn’t sure what to do now that his captain is held hostage. Gorson takes the opportunity to slap Mylen’s gun arm to the side and then deliver a crippling shot to the nan’s gut. Mylen keels over, but Gorson shows no mercy. He grabs Mylen by the scruff of his collared shirt and drives him head first into the hood of the shuttle.  Rensten turns his aim to Gorson as Mylen crashes limply against the pavement. Seeing the threat to Gorson’s safety, Maq places its free hand on the back of Leina’s neck and leaps forward, shoving her face onto the street. He rolls over her stunned body and leaps into the air, spin-kicking the pistol from Rensten’s hand. Upon landing, Maq delivers a downward kick to Rensten’s knee, a diagonal chop to his neck, and a leaping elbow to the side of his skull. The nan drops down defenseless. Leina curls up to her knees, blood streaming from her nose and brow, but Gorson scoops her up and hurls her into the side of the shuttle. After smashing against it, she crashes to the ground and stays there. In one last-ditch effort, Kyten points his gun up toward Maq, but the machine rolls sideways away from the shot as Gorson takes up Leina’s gun and sends a beam into Kyen’s shooting arm. The nan howls, now sustaining two gunshot wounds. Maq walks over and kicks away his gun to be safe, but he refrains from causing the officer any further injury.
People gasp and gawk at the battle that just unfolded before them. They see the stunning precision of Maq’s design and feel a sense of awe at how effectively he dismantled his opponents, but when it’s all done, Maq races into Gorson’s arm like a young boy. Tompton stands nearby, shivering from the excitement. Gorson scans the area, weary of new threats, but for now the people around them are too stunned to do more than stare at them. A shuttle behind the scene of the struggle honks its horn violently as it pushes its way through the crowd and stationary traffic lane. The sleek, black shuttle slides past the police cruisers and parks beside where Gorson and Maq stand. Maq observes that the shuttle driver actually has his hands on the steering wheel, indicating that it is being piloted manually, which would explain its break from traffic. The tinted window rolls down to reveal Deydrick and Werlen sitting in the passenger cabin.

“Get in, all of you,” the agent orders.
The door swings upward, permitting the trio to enter into the government vehicle.
“Driver, get us to the Sundance Tower,” Werlen barks through the open window between the cabin and the cockpit. He looks at Maq as he takes a seat between Gorson and Tompton. “Don’t worry,” he says, “we’ll get you home safe and sound. Not even idiots like them will stop a G.I.C. shuttle.”
“It’ll be okay Maq,” Deydrick consoles. He leans across the cabin and places a hand on Maq’s knee. “It’s not your fault, it’ll all be fine.”
Maq forces a smile, but its hands are shaking and its body is wracked with impulses that it can’t process all at once. If Synthetics can experience trauma, then that is certainly what Maq is feeling right now. All it can think about is how badly it wants to go home.

Chapter 5: Yvinka's Affections

Three people sit within the small hideout filled with colorful vapors writhing through the air. In the center, Kanso sees the plump Fredryko sprawled out over a leather sofa watching his holoplayer. In the chair to his left sits Kento, a tall, muscular nan with midnight hair tied back into a long ponytail. His face and complexion are of the Tybattan bloodline. Standing to Fredryko’s right is Yvinka, a beefy, towering lady the likes of which could only be forged from the genetics of people descending from Yrsa. They’re watching a news broadcast on something that happened at The Temple of Light. The footage shows the iconic white beam of light being turned blue as The Clergy recites their chant. The headline ribbon reads “Miracle from the Heavens or Elaborate Religious Hoax?”
“Can you believe this garbage, Kanso?” Fredryko muses, shoveling some fried goma chips into his mouth. “I mean is it even possible to believe that The All Powerful personally came down to our level, just to change the stupid color of some light that may or may not even actually be produced by the prayers of the holy.”
“I never believed in any of it,” Kanso states simply.
“Of course,” Fredryko tosses back another handful of junk food.
Yvinka saunters over to where Kanso stands, fists clenched at his sides like a child about to get scolded. “I’ve missed you, baby,” she jeers.
She slides a large hand across the side of his face with a surprising amount of tenderness. Then without warning, she balls her free hand into a fist and sinks it into Kanso’s abdomen. He keels over coughing and falls to his hands and knees. Before he can recover, she takes hold of his shaggy hair and yanks him up to his feet with a yelp. Then she shoves him against the wall and squares off to him. He shrinks away, unsure of if another blow is coming his way or not.
“It’s been too long!” she grumbles, doing her best impression of a neglected girlfriend.
It seems to Kanso then that she looks like a reaper. Her skin is whiter than the moon, her eyes are a crystalline blue, and her half-buzzed blond hair fails in pointed locks on one side of her face. Everything about this wonan looks cold and hard. She spreads her broad shoulders wide, letting him see the veins pop in her arms as she clenches them. She knows he’s terrified of her and she loves it.
“Did you at least finish the mark? If you didn’t, don’t worry, I’ve been craving a good long date with you. I’ve got something extra special planned for us tonight if you were stupid enough to show empty handed.”
Kanso’s hands tremble as he withdraws the comm unit from a pouch in his belt. His entire arm quakes as reaches to hand it to her. She snatches it out of his open hand and grins at him coyly.
“Ah, well maybe Fredryko will still let us have a little special alone time anyway given how monumentally late this is.”
“I’m sorry,” Kanso says softly. He tilts to the side, trying to look around Yvinka and meet Fredryko’s eyes.
“Hey! You’re talking to me you little piss!” Yvinka growls.
She charges up to Kanso and grabs him by the collar of his jacket. He shrinks back into the wall with even greater force as though it might embrace him in his time of need. His whole body quakes now and his breathing comes sharply.
“I didn’t mean any offense,” he pleads.
“Offense taken!” She pulls him forward and shoves him back against the wall. The blow rattles him.
“That’s enough, Yvinka.” Fredryko sounds bored as he calls off his enforcer.
Yvinka gives him one last shove before stepping back from him and bringing the comm unit over to her boss. Fredryko scrutinizes it before powering it on. He flips through the contents that display on the holo screen for a minute before shutting it down and looking back up at Kanso.
“Can I trust that this was at least acquired cleanly?”
“Yes sir,” Kanso replies, perhaps a little too quickly. “Mon Patel and his nen think they simply tried to mug the wrong Fendaren. I made it look like I just robbed them once I’d defended myself. I even have the comm units for all his nen.”
Kanso frantically rifles through the pouches in his belt until he has all three of the other devices in hand. His legs shake as he steps up to his employer with hands held out. Fredryko eyes him with an unreadable smirk.
“You could have made a nice profit off of these if you kept them for yourself,” he muses.
“I thought your client might like to have them.”
“You mean you thought that delivering these as a bonus might save your ass from a beating?”
Fredryko takes the devices from Kanso, his grin a little wider. Kanso shifts from side to side, his arms crossed and his eyes downturned. “I thought it was the least I could do. I stole their money too, but I thought it might be nice to hold onto that if that’s alright.”
“Well you really did rob them blind didn’t you?” Fredryko chuckles. It’s a deep, raspy laugh, the kind that comes with years of poisoning one’s lungs.
“I wanted to make sure it seemed real.”
“Well if there’s one thing that can be said about you, kid, it’s that your work is beyond thorough. I value this quality, as you know, but I also value speed.”
Kanso gulps although his mouth and throat are exceptionally dry right now. His eyes come up to meet Fredryko’s for a second before they shoot back down to the floor.
“Quality and efficiency. You really need to work on that second part.”
Kanso wants to explain that he didn’t realize Mon Patel would be so well guarded. He wants to deflect some of the blame to incomplete intel. He’d even like to yell at Fredryko for putting him in so much danger. Part of Kanso hates Fredryko. He hates how smug he is. He hates how he can just lean back on his couch and take a drag from his long, cylindrical pipe while Kanso stands here in fear and shame. But he remembers what Maiya told him so he keeps his mouth shut about all of these frustrations.
“I tried to do my best,” Kanso says at last, kicking a tuft of pink smoke that slithers by his feet. He sounds as defeated as he feels. Every part of him just hopes that Fredryko really will let him off easy.
“Just be better,” Fredryko says after he’s puffed out some more of the fluorescent smoke. “Oh and don’t think my daughter can save you the next time you screw up. Don’t get me wrong, I love that girl, I’d do anything for that girl. But this is business and I’ll not have her telling me how I should run my business. Got it?” Fredryko tilts his chin up in the air and exhales some smoke through his nose.
“Got it,” Kanso answers, no longer sure if he’s really off the hook.
“I honestly don’t know what she sees in you, ya know. I mean you’re alright and all, you’re one of my boys so of course you’re alright, but gosh is she smitten with you. You know you’re no good for her right?”
“I know. I’ve tried to tell her that myself...” Kanso admits.
“Well, such is life,” Fredryko chuckles, taking in another drag and blowing it out. “One day you’ll break her heart and she’ll learn her lesson. I’ll have Yvinka beat you half to death, of course, but I won’t shed a tear over any of it.”
“That sounds reasonable.” Kanso tries to keep his voice steady, but he really just wants to run out of this room to the safety of his apartment. He feels exhausted from everything he’s had to endure.
“The real reason I’m letting you off the hook today is that I’ve got another job for you, a big one. Actually it’s so big that you won’t be flying this one solo. It’s also not in Maccaan.”
“I – I’ve never been outside of Maccaan…”
Kanso’s mind reels at the idea. In fact, he’s never even been outside the city of Senten, though the city itself accounts for half the continent. He’s heard plenty about the other three nations in the Juun Empire, but he can’t imagine what they’re like in real life.
“Don’t worry, kiddo,” Fredryko chuckles. “You’ll have a chaperone.” He waves a hand to where Kento sits, inhaling bright blue smoke from his long-pipe, one ankle crossed over the knee of his other leg.
Kento breaks from his smoke to bob his head in confirmation. Then he returns to nurturing his pipe. He’s a nan of few words, this Kento. Kanso fears him, but not as much as he fears the brooding Yvinka. There are even some things about Kento that makes Kanso feel at ease. For one, there is a certain serenity in the way his deep brown eyes look at Kanso. There’s a smooth, matter-of-fact quality in his voice that makes Kanso feel calmer, though the nan rarely speaks. He also gives off a sense of refinement in the way that his pin-straight hair is so expertly tied back and the way it falls like satin ribbons down his neck. Kento’s also been there for Kanso when no one else has. While he has sometimes played a role in his punishments, usually through holding him while Yvinka hits him, he’s also been known to carry Kanso home when the beatings were particularly severe. Hearing that Kento will be guiding him on this new journey makes the proposition seem that much less scary.
“Who else is coming,” Kanso asks.
“Gart will be joining you two to Tybatta, once there, you will be joined by some local talent I’ve arranged to have work with you. Kento will take care of all of the arrangements. You and Gart just need to show up ready to do what you do best.”
Kanso’s heart races in hearing that Gart will be part of this mission. His mind reels with the fact that their last operation together still haunts him. “How soon will we be departing?”
“Tomorrow,” Kento answers in between drags.
Kanso’s stomach drops a little at the timing. He’s used to taking jobs on short notice, but this feels more like an adventure than a mark. His head spins at how little time he has to prepare himself. He’s not even sure how to pack for a trip.
Reading Kanso’s reaction, Kento adds, “The details of the mission will be explained along the way. Just make sure to meet me at the Ryden Docks by 700. You’ll want to pack two days’ worth of clothing most likely.”
Before Kanso can protest that he doesn’t even own a bag, Kento twists around and grabs a brown cloth pack from behind his chair. He tosses it to Kanso without another word.
“You’re payment’s inside” Fredryko announces. “I’ve docked it substantially for your inability to complete the mark on time. You can keep what you stole from Mon Patel’s nen though.”
“I understand, thank you.” Kanso turns to leave, but stops short. Turning back, he asks, “Do you really think I have what it takes for this job in Tybatta?”
“I wouldn’t pick you if I didn’t…”
“I’ll do my best, sir.”
“See that you do,” Fredryko replies, waving him out of the room.

Kanso exits the way he came, leaving the smoky room behind him. When he gets to the closet door, he knocks three times and then waits several minutes before the girl behind the counter opens it for him. He steps out before anyone can see him and gives her a nod of thanks and farewell. Then he leaves the shop and practically trots home, afraid of Fredryko changing his mind. He got very lucky today and he knows this all too well. He has no plans to push this luck so he heads straight for his apartment. Along the way, he passes an old Fendaren sitting curled up along a wall, hands outstretched.
“Help me, brother.”
Kanso thinks it’s funny that his fellow Landborn Fendaren call him “brother” only when they want something. He doesn’t feel like he owes this old fellow a thing. Not once has one of his kind ever come to his aid so he sees no reason to assist any of them. Even with these thoughts in his head, he comes to a stop before the beggar. He reaches into his belt and withdraws a handful of pensen to drop into the beggar’s hands. Without a word he turns and leaves.
“Thank you, brother,” the old Fendaren’s crackly voice calls behind him, but Kanso doesn’t respond.
As he walks, Maiya’s words echo through his heart, “Not everything in life has to be a barter. Sometimes you can do something just because you want to.”

This brings a light smile to Kanso’s face. He’s not totally sure why this small deed makes him feel good. Maybe in a way this is his manner of giving back to the universe for his good fortune. Perhaps he just didn’t want to be another selfish Fendaren. Maybe he did it to feel wealthy and powerful. In the end he doesn’t care why he did it, he’s just glad that he did. It feels freeing that he did it simply because he wanted to.

Chapter 4: Fredryko's Mercy

                Kanso enters into the busting Yurai Plaza feeling both victorious and defeated. The plaza isn’t quite as welcoming as the Bysc Marketplace. Gone are the wholesome kiosks and stands that do business beneath the light of day. Instead, Kanso finds himself in a web of dimly lit shops. There isn’t as much noise here either. Those who haggle often get beaten or shot so most just observe the price tags and make their silent exchanges. There’s an air of tension in this place. One can almost sense the shady dealings that go on here. Without having to hear or see anything, one simply knows that there is a drug deal happening behind the rug store or that someone is getting mugged beneath a staircase. A nan who passes by Kanso could be a gun-for-hire, a wonan who peers at him could be a lady of the night, and every shopkeep could be more than they appear to be. Danger lurks at every turn. It dwells behind everyone’s eyes. But Kanso is really only scared of one thing.
                He’s late. As flawlessly as he completed the job, Kanso is sure that there’s no way Fredryko is just going to let his tardiness slide. He knew when he took the mark that this would be a high-stakes mission. He knows Fredryko has already been under fire by the client which will in turn mean that Kanso’s head is on the chopping block. Kanso wonders what it will be this time. Will Koku and Yvinka take him out back and brutalize him till he can’t move? Will they bring out a bucket of water and see if he can actually breathe while submerged? Maybe he’ll get lucky they’ll just beat him a little, then tie him up and leave him in a closet to think things over. He worries that maybe this time is actually the last time he fails. Maybe this is the time that Fredryko has him killed. Kanso ponders the chances of this happening. He doesn’t think Fredryko wants to lose him, but for all he knows there could be a bunch of others just as good as him under Fredryko’s employ. He also has no choice but to face him. Fredryko is one of the few nen on the entire continent who will give work to a Fendaren. Kanso can’t make a run for it, no matter how badly he’d like to.
                But he’s also not ready to face the punishment waiting for him just yet so he ducks into a clothing store. He keeps his arms crossed while he peruses the merchandise just to let people know he isn’t going to try and steal anything. This shop keep is used to seeing him come in here. Sometimes he buys a shirt or some gloves so she doesn’t say anything when he comes in to hide from someone or something. He appreciates this courtesy so he tries to make a purchase as often as he can afford to. Today, he’s just going to browse and torment himself with wondering what’s going to become of him. He’s frustrated with himself for being so scared. He wasn’t this frightened when he faced off against Mon Patel and his nen. But this situation is different. The people he has to face now are just as likely to do him serious harm, but they’re also the closest thing he has to allies. He needs them, needs the work Fredryko provides, and that makes him vulnerable. Whatever they decide to do to him, he just has to take it. The thought of being so at their mercy makes him tremble. If he weren’t in public, he might even spill a tear. He’s so lost in his thoughts and emotions that he doesn’t even hear the nan coming up behind him. Two hands clamp down on his shoulders and squeeze his traps.
                Kanso gasps in both surprise and pain. He twists downward, flinging an arm up to chop at the person clutching him, but he’s released before the hit can connect and ends up falling face first onto the tile floor of the shop. A throaty chuckle resounds behind him. Kanso scrambles to his feet and backs away from his attacker, terrified that Fredryko’s already sent someone for him. He sees that it’s Gart, one of Fredryko’s hired thieves that also sometimes doubles as an assassin. They completed a job together before and Kanso found himself horrified at the nan’s ruthlessness. His stomach twists at the idea that Gart might be here to kill him. His nostrils and his gills flare as his breathing intensifies. He can feel the eyes of other shoppers on them, but for now, that might be a good thing. A crowd will make Gart a little less likely to do what Gart does.

                “Whoah there, a little jumpy are we?” Gart taunts.
                “What do you want? I’m done with the job, I’m just about to see Fredryko now…”
                One side of Gart’s mouth curls upwards into an amused smirk. “You think Fredryko sent me for you?”
                “I don’t care, just leave me alone, I have to go.”
                Kanso makes for the exit, but Gart throws a hand to Kanso’s chest, holding him at bay. Kanso isn’t sure if he can fight this nan. He’s not overly opposing in either size or stature. At first glance, he almost looks kind of pathetic. He’s short for a Hyunan, though still a little taller than Kanso. He’s also skinny and he only has one good eye. The other is covered by a black leather patch. Anyone looking at these two would certainly deem them to be worthy opponents, but Gart is just too willing to do too many things that Kanso isn’t.
                “Gart, please, I swear I’m done.”
                “Oh I believe you fish-boy, ease up. Fredryko hasn’t paid anyone to get you just yet. He is real mad though.”
                “So what, I’m supposed to just believe that you happened to find me here? Nice try, but I don’t plan on going someplace you can stick a knife in my back.”
                “Kansooo,” Gart mock-whines as he shoves Kanso back a couple of steps. His lip curls into a pretend pout as he says, “I’m hurt.”
                “Stop screwing with me,” Kanso snaps. Rarely does he let his voice raise to this volume.
                “Fine, I didn’t just happen to find you, but I’m also not here to collect on your head. I was just turning in a mark I had when Fredryko and the gang were talking about how late you are. They were so mad, I figured I’d hang around here a while and wait for you. I saw you come into the plaza, hide out in this shop and figured I’d stop by to see how you were doing.”
                “That’s very thoughtful…” Kanso states sarcastically.
                “Yeah see, I think you should apologize for thinking I was here to do something bad to you. I’m only here to see you squirm before you grow the balls to go in and face the big boss nan.”
                Kanso crosses his arms. “I’ll be fine…”
                Gart laughs even harder. “No, sir, you are so screwed, that’s for sure. Honestly I think I might just hang around and see if they drag your screaming ass outside. Maybe they’ll let me watch while they beat you, that’d be funny.”
                “There’s something seriously wrong with you…” Kanso shrinks away from Gart as he says this.
                “That coming from a Fendaren, there’s something seriously wrong with all of you.”
                “You’re a real bastard, you know that.”
                “Ouch!” Gart pretends to stumble back in pain, clutching his chest as though he’d been shot. “Come on, Kanso, kid, I thought we were pals… Plus tell me you wouldn’t enjoy seeing me get punished for being late.”
                “I wouldn’t”
                “Well that’s lame of you. This world’s no place for the faint of heart, gill-face, sooner you learn that, the less likely to wind up dead you’ll be.”
                “I don’t have to be like you to survive.”
                “We’ll see about that,” Gart snickers. “Well, you better get going. You don’t want to miss your hot date with Yvinka.” He steps aside, waving his arm in an elaborate arc towards the doorway.
                Kanso, keeps his eyes on Gart as he passes by and leaves the shop.

He isn’t convinced that Gart isn’t here to do something to him so he speeds towards Fredryko’s shop. It isn’t hard to believe that Gart would come just to see him in terror and he certainly believes that he’d love to see Kanso tortured. But he’s too close to where he needs to get take chances so he does his best to avoid any sharp corners and narrow walkways. Fortunately there are enough people out and about, even as the evening sky turns blood red, to make him feel safe while he’s out in the open. Not that anyone would come to his rescue, but it’s always nice to know that there’d at least be witnesses. The further he gets from where he left Gart, the more his mind contends with a different source of worry. Even if Gart didn’t come for his blood, that doesn’t mean none will get spilled. His heart thumps as he nears the stairs to the terrace that Fredryco’s shop is on. Waiting at the base of the steps is a familiar figure, one he hastens towards.
                “Kanso,” the lady calls out.

                “Maiya, I’m in a hurry, I’m late to see your father.”
                In truth, Kanso would much rather stay here with her, but he’d like come across as being in earnest to see Fredryko in case there are any listening ears around.
                “Hey, slow down,” she orders, placing a hand on his chest and taking hold of his lower bicep. “You’re shaking,” she observes.
                “I’m just in a hurry.”
                Kanso stares ahead, tying to will his eyes not to water. She’s seen him in a sensitive state before, so he’s not really sure why he’s putting on this false bravado.
                “You’re going to be fine!” she soothes, tilting her head in front of his face in an attempt to force eye contact. “I talked to my father for you. If you have what he sent you for, then you should be fine.”
                Kanso’s face softens and he finally looks her in the eyes. “Why would you do that? It’s not your problem. I messed up and your father knows that.”
                “He also knows you do good work. You know why I did it.”
                “No I don’t. You know I don’t like owing people.”
                “You don’t owe me anything.”
                “Yeah, I do. Why don’t you get that?”
                Kanso is flustered, but his tone isn’t harsh. Deep down, he does appreciate Maiya trying to protect him. A part of him does understand why she does it, but he also can’t help but feel angst at being indebted to her. Maiya can see the struggle in his eyes. She feels sorry for his inability to accept a gift.
                “What I don’t get, Kanso, is why you don’t think someone can do something for someone simply because they want to. Not everything in life has to be a barter. Sometimes you can do something just because you want to.”
                Kanso nods as he takes her hands in his. He sighs deeply and closes his eyes, too tired and too scared to argue the issue any further.
                “Come by later,” he says as he reopens his purple eyes. “We can do anything you want, that way I can at least make this up to you a little bit. If you think of something else you want me to do, just let me know then.”
                With that he releases her hands and starts to walk around her. He’d like nothing more than to be wrapped up in one of her warming hugs, but right now, he needs to stay hardened. Before he can get far though, she grabs hold of his wrist, causing him to twist around.
                “Just be meek with him, be apologetic. He’s mad, but if you’re honest and humble and genuinely sorry, then he will forgive you.”
                “Thanks,” is all he can manage.
                She’s not hurt by his terseness. She can feel his racing pulse before she releases his wrist. She knows how scared he is, how scared he should be. But she knows he’ll be alright. She’ll be there for him tonight when he’s at his most fragile. She watches as he ascends the stairs to the terrace, wondering if one day he’ll come to terms with the fact that she’s in love with him.

                Kanso marches over the clanking metal plates that form the terrace walkway. He does feel some relief at the idea that he’ll get mercy if he only just begs for it. While Kanso has never been a fan of begging, he’s not above it so far as Fredryko is concerned. When he first became a freelancer for him, Kanso had to get down on his knees and plead for a chance to prove himself. The first five people he turned to for work all sent him away and he didn’t know how much longer he could feasibly go without eating a proper meal. Back then Fredryko wasn’t so well known and Kanso agreed to work for half the price of any other professional thief so he got the job. Begging also got him extensions on some of his early marks. Now perhaps it would get him out of the harsh punishment he knows he deserves.
                Kanso comes to a stop in front of the entrance to Fredryko’s Kitchen, both a legitimate cookware shop and a front for Fredryko’s more profitable side business. He inhales deeply before taking the plunge through the door. The shop has fairly pleasant lighting consisting of various electric lamps lining the walls making guests feel like they’re at a half decent restaurant. A young girl stands behind the counter. Kanso doesn’t know her name.
He just nods to her and says, “Here to see the boss.”
She recognizes Kanso and motions for him to move past her. He takes a quick look around the store before going behind the counter and entering into what looks like an employee closet. To any peeking in, it would still look the part given the various cleaning supplies stashed on a shelf within, but those that enter inside know that it leads to a narrow hallway that wraps around to the back of the shop. Kanso steps lightly down it until reaching the small, stuffy lounge in which Fredryko and his enforcers await.

“Well hello, Kanso,” a deep, wonanly voice greets. The sound of it sends a shiver down Kanso’s spine.