“Light and Dark”

I spent the next six days in the hospital. I was told by Dr. Lawrence that the ferrofluid contrast had revealed moderate damage to blood vessels along one side of my skull. While I was under anesthesia, they used micromachine therapy to laser off damaged tissue, purge microbes, and graft artificial tissues to the exposed vascular walls. They then purged the clotting foam from my other wounds and used more micromachines for additional scaffolding. Dr. Lawrence said that any lingering concussion symptoms would hopefully disappear in a few days, and infection risk was essentially eliminated.

Unfortunately, my right shoulder was badly broken, and it would stay that way for a while. A stabilizing mesh was implanted from my neck to about halfway down my ribcage. It would hold everything in place for about six months, and then I’d need to have it removed. Moving my arm was excruciating, even with the pain medication I was given.

My father visited me a few times, first in dad mode and later as part of the investigation. Since I had technically done nothing wrong, I wasn’t responsible for damages to the campus. Nor would I be penalized for missing class time. As for the money, however, it was decided by the school board that both finalist teams would receive a sum of four thousand coin each. The ten players were all deemed MVP, which meant payouts to nearly four hundred people.

The superintendent called it a more equitable return on the people’s money. I considered it nothing more than a crock with the purpose of saving face. Once the winnings were doled out, a paltry eight thousand remained, which went into the wine fund as per my agreement with Carmella. Twelve hundred coin was my share, which isn’t a lot.

Weighing the outcome with its cost, I concluded that my little scheme had in the short term gone bust, for lack of a better term. I should have been absolutely livid, but in a way I had expected something to this effect from the beginning. The injuries were unprecedented, but nothing I couldn’t write off. There were still opportunities lingering over the horizon.

For now, recovery was top priority. Francesca, Felicity and Elena would swing by once a day to wish me well and tell me about the growing tensions at school. Raiden’s visitations were less often; his family found out about our relationship and didn’t take kindly to it. I wasn’t surprised, because despite my mom’s attempts to smooth the waters, my father had blown up in much the same way. The incident only served to make things worse.

Between my father and Raiden, I was unsure who I would ultimately side with. I didn’t agree with my father’s rationale, but could I really turn my back on him like that? On the other hand, what if putting my trust in Raiden happened to be a mistake after all? Would I be able to bounce back from such a thing? I honestly had no idea.

Anxieties like these tend to fester when one is alone in a hospital for days and days. So when Bradley Petersen showed up the day before my discharge, I was somewhat relieved. I say somewhat, for a different kind of anxiety began to blossom in its place.

Bradley pulled my cell phone from his pocket and set it on the bedside table. “I figured you might want this back.”

“Oh yes, because I so missed being able to text,” I scoffed. “Please tell your men to be gentler next time; I don’t think I’d survive being dropped from a building.”

“You’re the one who suggested authenticity! Unfortunately, I can’t stop them from acting against you. I did warn them that your old man’s a cop, though. That might keep them in line, but it might not.”

“Jeez, and you call yourself a gang leader?”

“I’ve never done this shit before, so cut me a little slack, okay?”

“You’re right, you’re right. Forgive me.” With a sigh, I grabbed the phone off the table, careful not to twist my bad arm too much. “So walk me through using this applet thing.”

“Basically, it creates a virtual drive and adds it to your RedWave devices list. The drive keeps files pertaining to the approved serial numbers for those in our group. These serial numbers are geolocated through the internet. When two serial numbers display geographic proximity, the RedWave frequency is activated, and the receiving phone connects to the sending phone’s drive ID to download any pending messages.”

“It sounds pretty complicated,” I muttered. “How does it know to send the messages to the right people? And how does it prevent duplicate messages?”

Bradley pulled out his own device. “In the system, your entry is listed with an alias, but the serial number is tied directly to the phone in your hand. Your phone also has its own RedWave MAC address. If I want to connect to your phone, the virtual drive will copy the address of your phone and then disable itself.”

He tapped the commands on his screen, and suddenly my own phone dinged with an alert that his had connected. “After the message receipt is confirmed, the connection is severed and the virtual drive takes over once more.” He sent a test message, and his phone disconnected itself a few seconds later. “As you can see, the setup is quite flawless and nearly impossible to hack.”

“Good to know, since Carmella decided to pull one on me the other night.”

“So I gathered,” replied Bradley. “There’s something about the woman that just refuses to sit right with me.”

“What is it?”

He hesitated. “I think I’ll have a better idea when I finish my investigation. Forget it for now. In the meantime, let’s focus on what we do know.” He placed his phone on a standing tray and dimmed the window shades. Holograms painted themselves on the walls of the room. “We know now that the Megaera household has been making frequent contact with Arrow of Artemis, using them as a third party.”

“Raiden told me as much back in July,” I confirmed with a nod.

“It’s likely that whoever attacked Artemis last wanted to send a warning to Megaera. Shipments on their behalf were targeted at random in the months that followed, but beefed up security on the part of Artemis prevented casualties while keeping shipments intact.”

“What were these shipments, anyway? Felicity said the one that was attacked was just old machine parts.”

“I looked into that as well. Apparently their use is in artillery cannons from the Pre-Settlement Era; you know, the ones used for shooting down space rock? There wasn’t really a use for them after the fact, so I guess they were bought off and then languished somewhere for fifty years.”

“Alright, so Megaera had the parts and shipped them to whoever needed to revive a space gun. My next question would be how.”

“Simple: the first generation of the Megaera family was a part of the project. Essential to any good business is documentation of everything, even when old tools become obsolete. It can easily be repurposed for other applications if one is creative enough.

“I haven’t yet figured out what those applications are, but this is a start. I’d go as far as to hazard a guess they’re supplying the muscle to these things as well. The guise of a fertilizer company certainly lends itself to such an activity.”

“Do we at least know the intended recipient?” I asked.

“It’s some firm known as Xandria Holdings. They fund research proposals or some shit. Land is cheap in the Feather Creek Desert so this company bought a bunch back in 2088. Not sure what they really do with it all, but the outdoor labs have always been considered a side thing with them, though that’s only the public’s interpretation.”

I could sense the sharpness in his words. “I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is always going to be no.”

“Oh come the hell on, Jade! It would be so easy for you to get into your father’s database!”

“Sorry, but I don’t feel like being killed, then arrested. We do this with our own diligence, no exceptions. Now then, what do we know about the cryovenom?”

Bradley pointed to a map image on the far wall. “It seems more people are taking hits than ever. Ironically, purchases are made through a RedWave server not unlike our own. When a payment clears, the coordinates of the drop are sent to the buyer. It’s like geocaching, but with drugs.”

“And the gangs?”

“Doing all they can to put a stop to it. I’m genuinely shocked the lengths Megaera household is willing to go to.”

I scoffed. “Why is that so hard for people to believe?”

“Let’s be hypothetical for a second. What if it turned out Xandria was supplying Cryovenom?” Bradley pointed to a shipping record on another side of the room. “That info was taken from a double agent in Artemis. Turns out the shipments from Xandria to Megaera correlate with spikes in cryovenom availability.”

“Well, isn’t that convenient?”

“Everyone, from your father to the principal to our school, has been distrustful of that family name for years. Not months, but years. Jade, have you really taken the time to step back and think about the very real possibility that your boyfriend is lying to you?”

My blood boiled to the point where even my left eyelid began to twitch. “First of all, if you think that you have any warrant toward patronizing my judgment, the door is right over there. Secondly, I am willing to give Raiden the benefit of the doubt until he demonstrates otherwise. If your hypothesis about his parents being deceitful tyrants – to their own peons, no less – holds weight, then I’ll confront him about whether he wants to follow that path. Should he break away, then I’ll help him to achieve such a lofty goal. It’s that simple.”

Bradley turned off the holograms and returned his phone to in his pocket. “I truly meant no offense. You are a childhood friend after all; I’d rather not let business get in the way of longstanding personal relationships if I can help it. That in mind, you do have me curious. Should Raiden choose the path of evil, how would you respond?”

“It’s obvious; I’d kill him in cold blood for wasting my time and my trust.” Taking a deep breath, I laid my head back on my pillow. “I think that’s enough talk for now. Thank you for all of your help these past few months. I will next convene with you once my body is back to one hundred percent.”

“Yeah, that sounds good…” He waved me off half-heartedly as he closed the door behind him. I was left alone to brood. Hmph… I must have scared him with that joke. Then again…

There was a lull as the month reached its end, a calm-before-the-storm sensation which blanketed the city. As factions did their buy-ins – set on the order of triple digits per individual – the city purse soon exceeded three and a half million coin and kept climbing from there. Unfortunately, the wine fund idea was not viable at such an extraordinary sum.

Thus, with two days remaining, I found myself again in the office of Carmella Albury. Given the flurry of public inquiry now aimed in her general direction, I had expected her to be tense, reactive even. To my surprise, she slumped passively in her chair, arms stretched along the armrests and a soft scowl on her face. “It’s good to see you weren’t too seriously injured, Miss Cassia.”

“Thank you for the concern, Mrs. Albury. I fully intend to be more careful in the future.”

“That’s probably advisable. Now then, it would appear that the framework for your little game has reached its critical mass. There aren’t enough individual lots on a register to accommodate the thousands of players who’ve pledged money to the dummy account. I believe it goes without saying that one does not simply pledge money to half a bottle.”
Nodding, I began to walk around the room, tracing my finger along the shelves of books.

“The nice thing about the original competition is we didn’t necessarily have to think about fund maturation, since it was just your faculty and me. Now though, we have three or four gangs all wanting returns on a monthly or even weekly basis. If we can’t do that, then the game becomes winner-take all and that will lead to, well…”

“You worry too much, Miss Cassia. Do you remember our conversation about the Twenty Rule?”

“What about it?”

Carmella stood and walked to the shelf I was browsing just a moment earlier. Pulling out a thick book, she opened it, revealing it to be a hollow compartment. “Interest for three and a half million is roughly seven thousand a week. We just need someone who will pay out on a weekly basis.”

I let out a gasp when I saw the contents. “That’s a gem. Those are definitely gems.”

“Isn’t it beautiful? It turns out that an entire industry surrounds this special material.”

“So… What is it, exactly?”

“Sadly, I’m not at liberty to tell you,” replied Carmella as she shut the book, placing it back on the shelf. “Just know that shipments of this rock go for a premium, and quickly at that. There is absolutely nothing to worry about.”

“I suppose I will have to take your word for it.”

“Good girl. I’ll take care of the foundational work; all you need to do is start winning the moment the ball drops. Got that?”

“Yeah, yeah; I’ll leave you to your principal duties then. Thank you for your time.” I waved to the secretaries as I left the administrative building. Xandria… that was the name of the third party supplying the gems… The chill of an approaching storm shook me to the core, and I reactively gripped my broken shoulder. I should probably head home now. I did just get out of the hospital yesterday. I found my motortrike in the senior parking area. I did not expect Raiden to be sitting on it.

He waved toward me with a smile, holding two cups of coffee. As I approached, he gestured for me to have one. Blushing, I took the hot drink and held it close to my body. “Thank you, Raiden.”

“I’m sorry for not seeing you sooner, Jade, and sorry I couldn’t protect you.”

“Chivalrous as ever,” I smiled and let him put his arm around me. “You needn’t worry so much; I can handle things like this on my own if I have to. Plus I’m sure circumstances haven’t been easy on your side either.”

“As the Megaera heir, it’s my responsibility to ensure the continued preservation of all those in my jurisdiction. Yet I would abandon such duties entirely if it meant keeping you safe.”

“You and I both know that simply isn’t an option now.”

“Then come with me! Join the estate so I don’t have to fight you!” It sounded as though his voice were beginning to choke up. Has he been agonizing over this the whole time I was gone?

“It’s just not that simple; doing so would break my father’s heart and I can’t bear the thought. Not to mention my loyalties to Francesca and Felicity. I have to be unbiased, which means becoming the leader of Reserve Class, no matter what that decision entails.”

Reserve Class was the name of our school’s team. It consisted mainly of students who weren’t affiliated with other gangs in the city.

Raiden gripped my hand softly. “My heart aches at the thought of us locked in battle.”

“Maybe it won’t come to that.”

“But Jade!”

Doing my best to reassure him, I squeezed his hand. A rush of pain flowed up my arm but I ignored it. “Raiden, the best we can hope for right now is that our two legions can hold out against all others. If we alone remain, we can compromise at the very end. It’s not impossible; we just need to believe.”

“Jade… Alright; I will believe. I will believe until the last breath leaves my body. Such is my love for you.”

“If you can do so, then our love shall overcome this distance and any obstacles along the path. This shall be our promise, our vow.” Leaning up, I pressed my lips to his for several seconds, my eyes closing in the heat of the moment. Around us, the wind whistled, muffling the soft echoes of students making their way home.

Did I love Raiden? I suppose I wanted to convince myself of such a thing. I wanted to convince myself that my experiences with the man next to me were genuine, that they weren’t simply a dream or fabrication. For if they were…

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