EPISODE 45: STEPPING UP

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Juel Flores. Marday, Aries 19th, 2348 AA. 8:03 PM. Arroyo – Central Terrace (Juel’s House).

Juel heard Sev bellow at Junior through the phone:

“Yeah, and you don’t seem twisted or insecure at all!”

The taunt was immediately followed by the sounds of splintering wood, a startled cry, and the phone hitting the ground hard before the call dropped.

“Sev!” Juel shouted. Goddammit!

Elamni was still sitting in bed next to him looking at him with deepening fear. But her anxiety was abruptly supplanted by her Ranger training.

“Juel. Tell me what is going on,” she demanded.

“Demirci Junior has Sev,” Juel said, redialing the number. “And he has a bomb rigged to disrupt the lightways.”

“What?!” Elamni exclaimed.

“He says he’ll kill Sev or detonate the bomb if I contact any authorities, or hang up. But I think Sev just tried to jump him because the call just dropped.”

“What can I do?”

Juel swore when his second redial went unanswered. Did he get himself killed? Is Junior going to trigger the bomb in response?

“I don’t know, Lami. Don’t call anybody yet. But text me.”

What would Sev do? What can I do? One on three when they know I’m coming is a death sentence. I need an army. Or at the very least a squad of… A bad idea occurred to him. He couldn’t tell if it was the sort of bad idea that Sev pulled out of his ass to save the day, or the sort that would make things worse. But I’m out of time.

Juel scrolled through his phone contacts and hastily texted a recent entry to Elamni.

“Go into the other room. Text that number. Tell whoever answers that you are a friend of Delle Hopkins. Let them know there are three terrorists in LA’s Transit Authority guarding the computer that governs the lightways. They’ve got guns and cracked licenses.”

“Who are they? What do you want them to do?” Elamni asked, confused.

Juel hesitated, initially unsure himself. Ultimately, he settled on: “Get revenge.”

Juel’s phone started twitching again, and Juel answered before the ringtone could start playing. Elamni hastily went into the living room, already dialing the number Juel had forwarded to her.

“Detective Flores, I suggest you convince your partner to sit quietly,” Junior said. His voice was different. Strangely clogged.

Sev broke your nose, didn’t he?

“If you had done your homework, you’d know that isn’t really his style.”

“If he refuses to cooperate, or intervenes again in any way, I will instruct my men to detonate the bomb, and you can listen as I beat him to death. And to help ensure his compliance… If you would be so kind Bretta…”

An audible crack and an agonized scream came through the phone’s speaker.

“What the fuck did you do to him!? What the fuck did you do!?”

“I just broke his legs, Detective Flores. Consider it a warning shot. If there is another interruption, for any reason, be it deliberate, accidental, or an act of God, I will shoot him until there is more metal in his body than blood.”

Sev shouted, voice shot with pain:

“Get the bomb, Juel! Don’t give this son of a bitch the satisfaction.”

“I think we’ve heard enough from you, friend. You have exactly one hour, Juel. Make your decision. And don’t hang up.”

“You’re the one dropping your phone,” Juel said.

“Yes. You are very clever.” 

Juel secured his Keeper’s licenses to his wrists, grabbed a shoulder rig, slotted his service weapon into one holster, and a Plato in the other. Then he paused, switching his phone to silent and tapping out a text to Elamni:

“Are they on board?”

A couple seconds later, she replied:

“They said they’d ‘think about it.’ I’m calling Miquell. We’ll storm the place ourselves if we have to.”

Miquell was Elamni’s partner in the Rangers. He was good people, and Juel trusted Elamni’s judgment where discretion was concerned. Odds are, despite Junior’s speech, they don’t have eyes on the Hahamongna Rangers, but I don’t want to run the risk of a full dispatch. I also don’t want to send you up against magic without magic on your side! Damn. And any magic I cast now will wear off long before she can get there. Son of a bitch.

Juel tapped a final reply:

“Keep at it. Tell them to bring cracked licenses. Leave now. On foot. Wear a hoodie.”

Juel had a comfortable apartment above a once-affluent shopping mall on Arroyo’s central terrace. He was sure that they were surveilling the garage exit, watching for his car. And if they are smart, they’ll leave a scout behind. But if Elamni leaves first, and they aren’t positive who she is, they can’t afford to follow her until I come out.

“You’ve grown quiet, Detective Flores,” Junior said. “I can only assume you are scribbling a desperate note to a collaborator.”

“I actually went to take a piss,” Juel said. “Or did you want me to narrate a play-by-play?”

Junior chuckled.

“Very well. I suppose one bathroom break is in order. For the record, I fully expect you to attempt some sort of back-channeling to conjure a cavalry. But the second I detect your counter-measure, I will detonate the bomb.”

“See, this is why you’re single.”

“Excuse me?” Junior asked.

“Nobody likes a narcissist. And you are insufferably pleased with yourself.” Juel stepped into the living room, and spoke as if he was addressing Elamni, who had already left. “Honey, I’ve got to go. Do not leave the apartment. No. Everything is fine. Just made a breakthrough in the case. I’ll tell you when I get back.”

“Yes. What will your woman think?” Junior asked. “You’re a monster if you let all those people die. But if you are willing to sacrifice Sevardin, who aren’t you willing to sacrifice?”

Juel grinned, but said nothing. You might have my number, you son of a bitch, but if you think you understand Elamni… you’ve got another thing coming. The people who underestimate ‘my woman’ come to regret it real quick.

—605 Freeway|8:37—

Juel didn’t hang up, but he stopped answering Junior’s questions early on in the drive, except to assure him that he was still on the line. Traffic was heavy that night, and for once, Juel was grateful. He wanted to give Elamni as much time to put together a plan as possible, and he assumed Junior would detonate the bomb as soon as he reached Sevardin.

“Interesting. You really are coming for Sevardin.” Junior said. “Or you are taking a very… scenic route to the transit authority building.”

“Tell your people they suck at tailing,” Juel replied. “I could have shaken this Lucid you have creeping on me at least three times.”

“I don’t doubt it. But I must confess… I am surprised. You must be quite a narcissist yourself, detective.”

“How do you figure?”

“You either believe your countermeasure is infallible; that you have found a way to disable the bomb. Or you’ve found some way to justify the death of nearly a thousand commuters.”

Juel scoffed.

“For an enlightened freedom fighter, you’re really getting a charge out of this little game. You sure you want ‘free magic,’ or do you just like hurting people?” 

“It’s all about the narrative, Juel. That’s how wars are won. How do you think the county—the country—will react, when they learn that we gave you a choice? The familial ties; sons inheriting the sins of their fathers—it lends the situation a certain biblical gravitas. You will become the face of the Amagium’s hypocrisy.”

“I guess I’m not an expert on ‘the narrative,’ but in my experience, terrorists who issue ultimatums are generally perceived as the bad guys.”

“We aren’t looking for adoration. People will condemn us as monsters. But monsters have a handy talent of acting as mirrors. At the end of the day, the world will see—and the world will remember—that when it comes down to it, Amagia will err on the side of personal interest and vanity over public safety.”

Juel snickered.

“You really are just like your father.”

Junior sighed.

“This again?”

“Sorry. I literally said that on reflex. It’s just funny to me. Both of you moralize. Tinker with people. You assume that preying on other people will somehow get bystanders to come around to your idea of enlightenment.”

Juel continued. He acts like this is water off a duck’s back, but he hates it. I can practically feel his temper through the speaker.

“It is funny to me. You keep trying to bait me with my father. But in truth? Ajola was the most important role model of my life.”

Juel narrowed his eyes, gripped the wheel tighter. Watch your words, you son of a bitch. But in the end, he stayed silent.

“Failed men make excellent teachers. So long as the student recognizes their shortcomings. Where you were presented with a hero, I saw only the results of his rage. The inherent hypocrisy of Amagiate justice.”

“Your father butchered innocent children by preying on their desires.”

And the only mistake he made was that he wasn’t thorough enough with your bastard of a father.

“My father was evil, and I will make no excuses for him,” Junior said. “But your father, the hero, solved the problem the only way he was capable. The bad man was punished. There was no concern for the bad man’s wife, or his daughters, or his son. His paralysis prevented more murders, it’s true. But it did nothing for the victims. Nothing to correct the damage done. Your father may be a success, measured against mine, but is he really a hero?  When criminals are reduced to monsters, even meager men seem heroic.”

Juel bit back his tongue. Focused on the road. Racked his brain for some way to disarm the bomb. He is trying to use me as a second bomb. He wants an outburst. He wants me to detonate. And he heard Sev’s voice. Don’t give him what he wants. Deny your enemies everything, and they will crumble.

“Growing up,” Demirci continued, “I wondered where the fault lay. My father, or the Amagium? After all, my father served the same creed. And I found people like myself everywhere. I did not even have to look. Your father opened my eyes, Juel. The Amagium does not protect Asfalis people. It protects itself. And you are proving this tonight, rescuing your ‘brother’ instead of hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent lives.”

Only if I fail. A thought idea occurred to Juel, and he quickly tapped out a text to Elamni, taking care to keep his eyes mostly on the road. He trusted her. He trusted Sev. And he trusted his father.

“Let us assume you win. If your… ‘contingencies’ beat mine… if you outfox me, somehow. You were still self-interested, and cocksure enough to risk those lives, and surrender your responsibilities for someone else. I have already proven my point, Juel. I have already won.”

“I’m not responsible for your horrors, Demirci. I’m only responsible for stopping you.”

Laughter, followed by a pause.

“I see. You are coming to kill me then?”

“It doesn’t need to come to that. All you need to do is surrender.”

“Surrender to an organization that maims children at birth. Submit to an order that sees asfalis suffer under the yoke of the amagiate. No. I have seen what you wrought, and the wheel must be broken.”

There was no point in a serious response. Juel snickered.

“You mind if I turn on the radio? I’m bored of this.”

Demirci snorted.

“Don’t hang up, don’t turn the volume up to mask your voice, and you can do whatever you like.”

“Hope you like classic rock,” Juel answered.

He turned on the radio, already tuned to his favorite classic station. Godard’s “Highway to Hell” blasted through the speakers, and he lowered the volume to hear Demirci on speaker.

“Still there, Junior?”

“Oh, my friend. I’m not going anywhere.”

You’re going to rot in a Magicarcerum for the rest of your miserable life.

Juel received another text from Elamni:

“Way ahead of you. We have a plan and we are ready to do it….”

Juel grinned as he read her proposal and texted back:

“Start calling my phone. Every ten seconds. When the call stops reading as busy, do your thing.”

—Sevardin | 8:50 —

More water slapped Sev in the face. He had passed out again as the adrenaline faded.

“Our guest of honor has arrived, friend. Wake to greet him, won’t you?”

“Fuck you,” Sev said, mostly on reflex.

What do you mean? Juel came for me? But the bomb. Sev stared in disbelief as Juel entered the mechanic’s shop, flanked by Bretta and Greth, phone held to his head. No. Juel. What are you doing? Why?

“I’m here Demirci,” Juel said. “This is my choice. Release Sevardin.” He hung up his symphone and stuffed it into his jacket pocket languidly.

Sevardin gaped. This is a joke, right? Or some kind of ploy? Juel, tell me you have a plan! Tell me you aren’t letting those people die. But Juel refused to meet Sev’s eyes and kept his gaze locked on Junior.

“My father would be moved to tears,” Junior said, smiling broadly. “I personally do not share his belief that one can only achieve truth through self-interest, but even I… Well. I am deeply touched. Forsaking countless lives to rescue your sworn brother,” Junior smiled and shuddered ecstatically.  

Demirci turned on a symvision. It was channeled to a camera that overlooked the transit authority building; a sprawling, mission-style compound that received dozens of incoming train tracks. Its front curb was flooded with various bus lines, taxis, and ride shares. From the stream’s vantage point—undoubtedly shot from one of the city’s skyrises—several strands of the lightways were also visible. Rush hour had died down, but the magical roads were still bumper to bumper in the downtown area.

“Come, come,” Junior prodded and produced a dead man’s switch, which he presented to Juel. “Would you like to do the honors?”

For the first time Juel seemed uncertain.

“Don’t have the courage to do it yourself?” He scoffed.

It was convincing, but Sevardin saw through it. He does have a plan, but something went wrong.

But then, the transit authority building abruptly went dark. The lightways turned from their typical golden hue to an angry ‘emergency alert’ red.

Demirci turned, stunned and irate. The room jumped into bedlam. Junior pressed the detonator switch and grabbed Sevardin from his seat, using him as a human shield. Juel drew a gun from his shoulder holster as he dove for cover behind a wheeled, metal tool cabinet. Then the shooting started. Roaring reports and pinging ricochets echoed through the workshop as Bretta and Greth opened fire.

Junior dragged Sev across the floor, hastily retreating toward the office. Sev yelled as his ruined legs hit the concrete floor. The pain from his shattered bones—disconcertingly, palpably loose and disconnected in his flesh—was so intense that it brought him to the brink of unconsciousness. Through it all, he resisted Junior. You won’t get far lugging two hundred twenty pounds of dead weight, asshole. Junior reached the same conclusion, and dropped Sevardin at the threshold to the mechanic’s central office, slamming the door shut.

From inside, he heard Junior yell into a phone or radio.

“Dvin. Are you there? Dvin!” Junior demanded.

After a moment of silence, there was a brief crackle followed by a haughty voice:

“Dvin ain’t available right now. The Rollers send their condolences, bitch.”

Jahnz! Sev grinned. Juel, You clever bastard. Pre-emptively compromising the building’s power supply isolated the central computer from the rest of the network, effectively neutering the spell bomb before it could spread through the network. And the Rollers are the perfect cavalry. Plain-clothed. Radio silent. Hungry for payback. Damn, Juel. You beat them at their own game. Whether we make it out of here or not, you did good, brother. Ajola will be proud. I’m proud. And you should—

The doorframe next to Sevardin exploded, deafening him amidst a shower of splinters and plaster. Shit! He’s trying to shoot me through the wall! Sev tried to dive to the side with sorcery, forgetting he was unlicensed, and falling painfully on his chest and jostling his legs again. The pain was sharp enough to make him sick, but he had cleared himself from both the office window and the door’s fragile cover.

Demirci fired three more times in frustration, and Sevardin could feel the wall thump loudly with each impact, but the bullets didn’t penetrate it.

Juel was in trouble, however. Greth had him backed into a corner, and Bretta was flanking him. Juel dove for cover again as she emptied her Plato. Sev extended his hand to fire his wyrd, only for the muscles in his wrist seize as the inhibitor ink blazed to suppress the magic, almost like a brand. Then Sev realized his outburst had drawn Greth’s attention. Now he’s aiming at me. Shit. Probably not gonna live through this one. But before the kid could pull the trigger, his jaw, neck, and shoulder exploded in sequence. Sev traced the gunfire to the entrance to the shop to find Ashford striding forward, his Locke drawn and smoking.

Bretta whirled away from Juel to fire at Ashford, giving Juel an opening to hit her with a binding contract. She got two shots off before the magic made her body go rigid. At least one shot struck Ashford in the shoulder. He swore, yelled, dropped his gun and fell against the wall.

Sev had crawled further away from the office, worried that Junior would try to finish him off. But instead of more gunfire, he heard a door inside swing open, followed by retreating footfalls.

“He’s running!” Sev shouted.

Juel, who had finished cuffing Bretta, looked to Ashford, who retrieved his weapon with his good arm. They both started to approach Sev, but Sev gestured “I can’t walk—after them,” while shouting and emanating: “Go!”

—Juel | 8:52 PM—

Juel kicked down the door and cleared the office.

“How’d you find me?” He asked Ashford.

“Little bird named Elamni said you were doing something stupid in Industry,” Ashford said, as the pair of them entered the hallway behind the office. “And that’s always a good show.”

Juel grinned. Thank you, baby. And thank you, Ashford.

“This is gonna be one hell of a write up compadre,” Ashford grunted.

Juel cast a reflex and speed enhancing contract while Ashford cast a kinetic buffer. They breached the front of the shop, instantly pelted by small arms fire and reckless kinetic magic. Both of them dropped behind the service counter.

“Get Demirci! I’ll cover you!” Ashford said, simultaneously starting a three count with his fingers.

Juel nodded, and on the count of three, Ashford popped up, shielding himself with a focused barrier, while firing his revolver. Juel mantled the counter a half second later and charged through the front window, shielding himself from the glass with his wyrd.

He saw Junior half-way across the lot, running for a black MacArthur Adder. Juel snapped his fingers, using a telekinetic pop to make Junior drop the keys to the vehicle. Junior spun, and started firing wildly, but his bullets only struck the streaks and blurs in Juel’s wake. Five sorcerous strides later, and Juel had closed the distance between them.

Junior threw a wild haymaker, backed by the power of his cracked licenses. Juel redirected his fist into the Adder’s door, which buckled inward. Impressive wyrd. Too bad he uses it like a bull. Junior launched an ill-advised back kick at Juel, and Juel swept his standing leg with telekinesis.

He followed up by dropping his knee onto Junior’s chest, and then he started throwing his own punches. He got a tooth with his first hit; he could feel the crunch of bone give way beneath his fist. He targeted Junior’s already broken nose with his second punch, and broke something else with the third blow across the jaw. He was vaguely aware of Junior slapping the ground. The offensive pressure of his wyrd immediately dissipated.

“I yield,” Junior managed.

What? The word was strange.Juel barely managed to hold his next punch. He was ready. Fight me. Fight me so I can kill you; you sadistic piece of shit.

“You beat me. I surrender.” He spat blood and smiled. His words were thick and sluggish from the beating. “Now. Will you play paragon, or will you paralyze me first, like your father did to mine?”

Juel smiled and shook his head slowly, still breathing fast, then drew his Locke and aimed it at Junior’s head, still pinning him to the ground. That was your best bait yet. After what you did to Sev, what you tried to do to those kids, and what you tried to do to this city… why stop with your spine? I should paint the ground with your brain. And nobody would know. Except me.

For a second, Junior’s smile faltered.

“Don’t tempt me,” Juel said through a quivering smile.

But I saw what that did to dad. And this is my chance to practice what he taught me. He swallowed air and ether, slowing his breathing. There are rules and you aren’t worth breaking th—

Junior’s eyes were drawn to something over Juel’s shoulder, and then the back of his head popped against the dusty lot. Juel gaped in horror. I didn’t shoot! Did I? No, I didn’t shoot!? I didn’t… He slowly turned to face Ashford stood several paces behind him, Locke revolver smoking in his left hand.

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