Exchange (short fiction)

Demon with 10,000 Fists


Most Players were assholes. That was just the truth. Maybe it was the Game that made them that way or maybe it was the nature of being a Player, of having a talent beyond obsession. Maybe it was the Mojo. Once you understood how little anything else mattered, it was easy to forget about everything.

Clockwork was different. He wasn’t a major Player. He wasn’t even a troubleshooter, like me. He was a guy who could build anything and was mostly content sitting in his workshop, designing stuff. Cold fusion cells, spider-robots, pocket teleporters, self-tying shoelaces. If you could imagine it, he’d probably already built it.

The stuff would run for a while once it left his shop, but after a few hours to a few days, it’d break. That drawback worked in his favor since he was the only one with the talent to maintain his wondrous doodads. It paid his rent, and it earned him Mojo, that precious nebulous commodity that ruled the Game.

A robotic butler, a bunch of gears hooked up to an old Colecovision, greeted me at the door. “Hello. You. Are. Expected.”

The automaton lurched into the back. I found Clockwork toiling at his workbench.

“Your. Guest. Sir.”

Clockwork looked up from the mass of wires he was fiddling with. “I wasn’t sure you’d come.”

“I owe you one,” I said.

I didn’t like having debts. You never knew when someone was going to call them in. Better to get it out of the way.

“They took her,” he said.

He didn’t have to say more than that. There was only one person on this world that Clockwork valued as much as his precious gizmos. His daughter. Family was a dangerous thing in the Game. Most of us wrote off family and friends. They were something to be used against us. Worse, it wasn’t always easy to care about Chumps. Once you realized how inconsequential they were, they seemed more like a distraction than anything else.

Clockwork was the exception. He adored his daughter. Everybody knew that. It was only a matter of time before someone tried to use that against him.

“Who took her?” I asked.

“Bullet’s men.”

It was not the name I wanted to hear.

“What’s she want in return?” I said.

“Something I shouldn’t give her. Something I will have to give her unless you can get Patrice back.”

That was bad news. Clockwork had once built a Furby that would disintegrate everything in a room if you said the wrong word to it and then he’d sold it at auction. He wasn’t the kind of guy to worry too much about what he put out in the world.

But he was worried now.

“I need you to get her back,” he said.

“If Bullet’s involved . . . ”

“You owe me.”

“I’m not sure I can . . . ”

“You owe me.” He turned toward his device and started snipping wires. “And you like the Chumps, don’t you?”

“I wouldn’t say like.”

“You don’t like seeing them taken advantage of, right?”

There were those who viewed the Chumps as irrelevant to the Game, just something to get in the way, but I figured they had to count for something. It wasn’t always easy to believe, but if I was fighting for a better world (and that’s what I tried to tell myself), they had to be part of that. Even if they weren’t, I didn’t see any reason for them to get hurt if it could be avoided.

“You could always not give it to Bullet,” I said.

“You owe me,” he said, without looking up from his work.

“I can’t make any promises.”

“I don’t need promises. I need her back. Do that—I don’t care how—and we’re even.”


All the Players had their own set of rules. Profit earned her Mojo by making money. I earned mine by punching and kicking anything that got in my way. Clockwork built stuff. It was a cycle. The more Mojo you had, the more you spent, the more you earned. Thermodynamics didn’t give a damn about Mojo.

The basic philosophy of the Game was simple. Players did what they were good at, becoming more powerful the longer they did it. Eventually, someone would be so good at what they did, they’d become a god. It hadn’t happened yet, though some were close. The Major Players fought their shadow war, and troubleshooters like myself worked for our piece of the pie.

Bullet wasn’t a Major. Like me, she worked the streets, using her talents to solve problems. And her talent was killing people. I might have beaten the shit out of people now and then, but most of them deserved it. They usually got to walk away after it was all said and done. Not so with Bullet.

And she was more powerful than me. Not by much, but by enough.

I stood in that empty pool hall, a suitcase in hand, staring at Bullet and her goons. Her goons didn’t matter. I could take them out without breaking a sweat. She held a gun at her side. I was faster than most bullets. But not hers.

“Hello, Shaolin,” she said. “I told Clockwork to come alone.”

I set the case on a table. “He sent me as insurance.”

Bullet cracked a smile, no doubt imagining me with a bullet between my eyes.

“Where’s the girl?” I asked.

Bullet nodded to a thug in a three piece suit, who brought a young girl from the back. She was a delicate, little thing with long, black curls and doe eyes.

“You okay, Patrice?” I said.

“Yes, ma’am,” she replied.

I opened the case, exposing the shiny automatic pistol inside. It was more than a gun. It was Clockwork’s mechanical precision. In the wrong hands, it could do a lot of damage.

“It’ll just break in a day or two,” I said. “You know that, right?”

“I only need it for a few hours,” said Bullet.

One of her goons reached for the case. I twisted his hand back in a paralyzing lock that left him whimpering on the floor.

“The girl first,” I said.

“That’s not how this is going to work.”

I was surprised Bullet hadn’t shot me already. Maybe she wasn’t as confident as she pretended. The Game’s scoreboard wasn’t sharp. It changed a lot. Maybe I’d moved up a slot since we’d last met. Maybe she’d moved down.

Her thugs advanced on me. I smashed one’s throat with a snapping kick, shattered the ribs of a second with a single punch, and broke a kneecap with strike. Some of the smarter guys pulled their guns. I tossed a billiard ball. It ricocheted off their skulls and while they were recovering, I used a pool cue to take them out.

It was all a distraction, but it worked. It was only reflex and luck (and Mojo) that caused me to jump behind a pool table as a shot rang out. Too slow. The slug dug into my shoulder, stinging like hell.

Bullet fired a few more shots, not even trying to kill me, just pinning me down. One round ricocheted improbably and buried itself in my side. That’s how deadly she was. Even just firing blindly, she tended to wound something.

I felt a charge in the atmosphere as she picked up Clockwork’s gun. There wasn’t any point in fighting now. That borrowed Mojo put her out of my league.

I stood, holding my side, feeling the blood staining me shirt. “You got what you wanted. Now give me the girl.”

Bullet chuckled. She aimed at my head and pulled the trigger. The goon next to me died as his head burst open in a bright red explosion. She fired again, and another of her men died, taking one to the chest.

“Useless Chumps.” She pointed her gun straight up and fired twice more, killing two more of her guys. She couldn’t miss. Not with her talent. Not with that gun. It didn’t matter if her target was in the same room or across town. All she had to do was pull that goddamn trigger. Even having that power for only a few hours, a day, she could kill almost anyone. And the more she killed, the more powerful she became.

“I never did like you, Shaolin,” she said.

“Who likes anyone in this Game?” I replied. “Initiate zeta protocol.”

“Strange last words,” said Bullet.

Before she could pull that trigger, little doe eyed Patrice leapt across the room like a gazelle and landed on Bullet’s back. Bullet fired into the air. Her concentration was off, and I felt a round whiz past my ear. Another slice across my cheek. A shot zipped around the room and blew off Patrice’s arm. She fell off Bullet, who fired two more rounds into the girl’s chest. Sparks flew.

I pushed through the pain and vaulted onto the pool table. A sweep of my leg knocked Clockwork’s gun out of Bullet’s hand. She went for her other gun. I flipped over her, barely ahead of the sweep of her firing. She might have been more powerful than me, but she was best at a distance. Up close, things changed.

I twisted her gun hand. She didn’t drop the weapon, but I heard fingers break. She screamed. I elbowed her in the face. Then I broke her arms. Every goddamn finger. Every bone. Until the limbs were little more than useless meat wrapped hanging limply at her side.

She slumped against the table. She still didn’t drop her gun, but it wasn’t much threat now.

I limped over to Clockwork’s gun and pushed the hidden button he’d shown me. It fell apart into a collection of useless parts.

Bullet scowled. “You better kill me, Shaolin. Otherwise, I’ll be coming for you.”

I agreed, but I wasn’t in great shape myself. It was only Mojo that kept either of us on our feet, and it was too precious to waste on a finished fight.

I helped Patrice up. Up close, her plastic skin wasn’t very convincing. You’d have known something was wrong with her even if you couldn’t see the mechanical bits exposed via her wounds.

“I’m broken,” she said.

“We’ll get you home. Your dad will fix you right up.”

She blinked. I could hear the tiny motors at work. “Are you repairable?”

I laughed, and the bullet in my side scraped away at something sensitive and vital. Bullet might have killed me already. Time would tell.

“I’ve had worse.”

I leaned on Patrice, and the little robot girl carried me out the front door.

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One Comment

  1. thebibliomancer
    Posted April 28, 2015 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    You tease/spoil us with these vignettes

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