I posted it on Quora because I think it's important to debunk some of the ill-informed and simplistic opinions about Singapore's foreign policy toward China. There are too many of those kinds of people voicing those opinions there. And I think too many of our people are not sufficiently educated on our foreign policy positions. This has to change if we are to be immunized against influence operations.
I am neither pro-China nor anti-China. I am pro-Singapore and anti-bullsh*t.
If you are a PRC patriot, or are uncomfortable with speculation and insinuations, please stop reading now. It’s for your own good.
Let’s examine the source in question. Who was this “ex-diplomat”?
· Bilahari Kausikan was former Permanent Secretary of our Ministry of Foreign Affairs
· He has substantial experience in the foreign policy arena. I assume he might be privy to classified information which is withheld from our public.
· He is no longer a civil servant; he is a pensioner. As such, his views do NOT officially reflect those of the Singapore government.
· Despite this, his views hold substantial weight and are frequently published in the Straits Times (which, although not under direct govt control, toes the official line and operates under some form of para-state oversight)
· He has not been outright repudiated by other foreign policy elites (as was the case with Kishore Mahbubani). From this we may infer that his views resonate somewhat with the establishment, or our foreign policy orthodoxy
· There are some things which our government cannot publicly/officially state, out of prudence…by which I mean, complicating our relationships with certain powers
· It is possible that the government prefers to use “unofficial” means (such as retired civil servants) to clarify or rebut certain narratives
Now let’s examine the substance of his argument.
That China exercises influence, pressure and coercion on Singapore, is not surprising. What should be disturbing is the MEANS or the CHANNELS through which it deploys its influence. There are LEGITIMATE channels for interstate intercourse. These include diplomacy, state media, international aid etc. etc. It is entirely natural (whether it is fair or acceptable is a different debate) for Great Powers to leverage their superior political/economic/military resources to make smaller states comply with their wishes, whether through persuasion or coercion.
But Bilahari Kausikan’s concern is with the ILLEGITIMATE channels: covert influence operations. These are violations of Singapore’s sovereignty, albeit under the cover of plausible deniability. Influence operations fall under the purview of covert action, which is different from espionage - and far more insidious. Espionage seeks simply to steal information. Covert action is intended to influence events (for example, domestic politics or foreign policy) within a target nation-state to one’s own benefit
Now let me be clear: All Great Powers conduct influence operations and espionage. China is no exception. Neither is the US. And Singapore is not exempted from their attempts. Our response has been very even-handed.Examples of foreign interference in the course of history and in SingaporeAn American diplomat once tried to influence the 1988 Singapore General ElectionSingapore Protests U.S. 'Interference' After Diplomat WithdrawnRussia spy claims: US nabs Singapore centre research fellow
But this is not a valid excuse. People who employ this excuse are essentially saying “So what? everyone does it”. To quote the Chinese Ambassador’s response “I would say firstly that every country hopes to gain recognition and support for its development philosophy and foreign policies. In this sense, China is no different.” This is equivalent to arguing that wife-beating is acceptable, because many husbands beat their wives! The issue here is not that China or the US wants our support. The issue is the means by which they seek to procure our support.
American influence operations seek to impose a liberal-democratic ideology on Singapore. They are mostly ineffective because American notions of liberalism do not find much resonance among our public political consciousness. Nonetheless, these operations should be exterminated/neutralized whenever and wherever they are detected.
But Chinese influence operations are more dangerous and insidious because they seek to impose a CHINESE identity on multiracial Singapore. This is something much harder for our population to resist, particularly because our national identity is so young and malleable. The appeals of ethnicity and culture are primordial and enduring.
SPECULATION ON CHINA’S 2016-2017 INFLUENCE CAMPAIGN
In August, Huang Jing was exposed for giving “supposedly "privileged information" to a senior member of the LKY School, so it could be passed on to the Singapore Government. The information was duly conveyed by that senior member of the LKYSPP to very senior public officials who were in a position to direct Singapore's foreign policy”.
About 3 months later, LKYSPP Dean Kishore Mahbubani, who previously was a senior MFA diplomat (and presumably has contact with “very senior public officials who were in a position to direct Singapore’s foreign policy”), stepped down from his position. If you go on Youtube and watch the speeches and interviews he has been giving, he has become something of a hype-man advertising China’s rise.
I think we can put two and two together.
I do deeply respect Kishore Mahbubani. I think he is an intellectual worth reading and worth listening to. I have no doubt that he earnestly, sincerely believes in the views that he propounds. I definitely agree with many of his ideas about the rise of Asia and China. In fact, I will be buying his new book “Has China Won?”. But I also think some of his ideas regarding China lack nuance. Reality is often complex.
When Lin Xieyi speculated that Huang Jing was a US agent, this was Kausikan’s comment: “This is the sort of stuff we must expect, intended to confuse the issue. Some of it will come from the seemingly neutral or well-meaning or the naive or from those whom Lenin used to call 'useful idiots'”Ambassador-at-large, Bilahari Kausikan, scoffs at Quora user questioning who Huang Jing is working for
Kausikan shared more details on the Chinese influence campaign in this lecture, which I encourage all of you to watch:
If you don’t have time, I’ll summarize (tl;dr skip to the bolded italics):
When Singapore stood firm on its right to state its position on an issue of undoubted importance to us and to the region (South China Sea), the Chinese activated their influence apparatus and went into high gear to pressure the government - our government - to change position…
Not all influence operations pose the same degree of risk. The uniqueness of Beijing’s influence operations stems from China’s triple identities. And this prescribes three tracks on which China conducts its foreign policy and influence operations.
First, the PRC is a state like any other state, operating within a still largely Westphalian international order… On this first track of state-to-state relations, there’s nothing particularly unusual about what Beijing does, except the unusually assertive assertive behaviour of some Chinese diplomats of late, in countries as far-ranging as Malaysia, the PNG and Sweden.
Secondly, the PRC is not just any state, it’s also a Leninist state…and the characteristic modus operandi of a Leninist state is the United Front, which Mao Zedong called the CCP’s “magic weapon”… the main characteristic of a Leninist state is the total subordination of state and society to the interests of the Party, irrespective whether the Party’s interest is internal or external. And as such, the United Front represents a blurring of the distinction between domestic and foreign policies and a significant modification of the principle of non-interference that goes far beyond what is generally considered acceptable diplomatic practice.
Thirdly, the PRC is also a civilizational state: the embodiment and exemplar of millennia of the Chinese nation’s history and culture, now rejuvenated…and this identity as a civilizational state finds expression in the work of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office… In plain language, overseas Chinese should identify their interests with China’s interests and work to advance China’s interests. And this represents a deliberate blurring of the distinction made between the 华人 (ethnic Chinese) and the 华侨 (overseas PRC citizens)…
Now these 3 identities prescribe 3 tracks on which China conducts relationships. And taken holistically, they create a sophisticated and flexible instrument of influence that is far more effective than the conventional operations conducted by other countries. China’s influence operations are effective because the 3 tracks on which it operates makes it difficult to deal with or even grasp - even understand - in entirety.
On the first track of state-to-state relations, the usual tactics of persuasion, inducement or coercion may be deployed as appropriate, whether overtly through diplomacy or covertly through intelligence organizations. But the United Front may simultaneously operate to, for example, emphasize coercion or inducement even as the first track stresses persuasion. And the third civilizational track may conveniently wrap everything up in appeals to ethnic pride…Now the tendency of all governments and in particular foreign ministries is to focus on the first track of state-to-state relations and to want to keep them on an even keel…But this can all to easily lead to Chinese activities on the other two tracks being overlooked or downplayed.
[the narrative of China’s absolute rise and America’s inevitable decline] and others were propagated by various means: WeChat with Chinese-speaking populations, social and mainstream media, whispering campaigns, business, clan and cultural associations, as well as conventional agents of influence reporting to Chinese intelligence organizations who cultivate what Lenin called “useful idiots”.
It was difficult to pin down the precise origin of such narratives, but the messaging was to consistent, and too insistent, to be coincidental…many Singaporeans did not realize they were being fed oversimplifications and swallowed them whole or played along for other reasons. Businessmen, academics, and others with interests in China were given broad hints that their interests might suffer unless Singapore was more accommodating and passed the messages to the government…Appeals to ethnic pride were made to others. The aim was to instil a fatalistic acceptance of the inevitability and desirability of a Chinese identity for multiracial Singapore and get Singaporeans to pressure the government to align Singapore’s interests with China’s interest.
In any case and for whatever reason, the 2016–2017 Chinese influence operation was effective. The pressures on the government were great. It was very difficult to explain the somewhat abstract importance of UNCLOS or the nuances of our position on the South China Sea or the complications of our relationship with China to the general public, to whom the Chinese narratives were more easily understood. And it cannot be denied that ethnic appeals resonated strongly with a probably not insignificant section of our public.
It’s clear enough for whom Huang Jing worked. I told you he had dual US-PRC citizenship. In case you don’t know, holding dual citizenship is forbidden in China. Huang Jing today holds a senior academic position in China, apparently without sanction for holding American citizenship.
As the only majority ethnic Chinese sovereign state in the region, Singapore is a special case. A majority Chinese Singapore that nevertheless conducts an independent foreign policy may be something of an anomaly in Chinese eyes.
This is not the ravings of some conspiracy theorist. This is our former Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs speaking.
What is a strategic narrative? A weaponized story.
In its influence campaigns against Singapore, the PRC advances a number of strategic narratives, all of which are, at best, questionable in their truthfulness. Sadly, some of our Singaporean Chinese compatriots sometimes buy into these narratives and even confidently echo them. Now, most of our population is only cursorily interested in foreign affairs and may find such superficial narratives plausible. This must change if they are to be immunized against these narratives.
This is a war of narratives. China cannot officially pressure us to choose sides. But they can paint a certain picture through unofficial channels and try to box us into a corner. They can try to tell us “See, this is what you are doing! Stop it!”. When they do that, we MUST push back by painting our own narratives and showing them that “no, actually we’re not doing that. We’re doing THIS”.
MYTH 1. Surely as a “Chinese country”, Singapore should “explain” China’s position (on the South China Sea and other issues) to the rest of Southeast Asia
MYTH 2. China is rising and US is declining; therefore we should bandwagon with China. You should get on the right side of history!
MYTH 3. If you are not with China, then you are against China! You are an American puppet/proxy, or, if you are ethnic Chinese, even worse - a race traitor!
MYTH 4. Singapore has no claims in the South China Sea, and purports to be a neutral/non-aligned country so why is it “taking sides” with the US against China by agreeing with the PCA ruling and hosting US naval assets?
MYTH 5. Unlike Lee Kuan Yew, the current PAP leadership under Lee Hsien Loong doesn’t know how to deal with China. Relations were sooooo much better under LKY.
Let me proceed to puncture each of these myths in turn, with great pleasure.
MYTH 1: We are NOT a “Chinese country”. We are a country that happens to have a majority ethnic-Chinese population that organizes itself on the basis of multiracialism/multiculturalism. This has been fundamental to Singapore’s identity since the days of Lee Kuan Yew, and this is something we must always remember, no matter how many times we are accused of being “race traitors” by our mainland friends. When the PRC tries to impose a “Chinese” identity on multiracial Singapore, we MUST resist.
Yes, we share ties with mainland Chinese on the basis of blood and culture. This ethnocultural kinship should be celebrated, not denied (as in the case of some HKers). Our similar cultural programming allows us to understand the Chinese mindset in some respects, to “empathize” with it.
But it does not mean we should unreservedly parrot China’s claims to the rest of Southeast Asia. As country coordinator for ASEAN-China relations, our job is to uphold ASEAN centrality; to represent the interests of ASEAN, of our REGION, in dealing with China. It is not to represent China’s interests in dealings with ASEAN. We have no obligation, moral or otherwise, to advocate or support China’s interests. Understanding them is one matter. Supporting them is another. The two are not mutually irreconcilable, but they must be distinguished.
MYTH 2: This myth, like many other myths, has a grain of truth to it. It is very ably represented by the speeches and works of Professor Kishore Mahbubani, our former ambassador and an intellectual whom I admire very much. Unfortunately, it is also extremely oversimplified and ignores many problematic nuances.Indeed, China is rising and has been for quite a while. You would have to be blind to deny that. But China’s rise is not going to be linear; it is going to be a long, winding, and fluctuating road. China has many internal structural problems of its own to deal with. From the way some people talk about China in juxtaposition to the West, it makes it sound like the Chinese are strategic masterminds while the Westerners are a bunch of bumbling idiots. Like I said, grain of truth, but grossly oversimplistic. It ignores many of the US’ intrinsic strengths and some of China’s structural challenges.
China is rising, but America is NOT in decline, except in relative terms. Militarily it is still pre-eminent in the Asia-Pacific. Its military dominance is receding and will continue to recede in time, as the PLA Navy becomes stronger. China is becoming more and more economically central to our region and the world; depending on which index of measurement you use (GDP PPP, GDP per capita, absolute GDP) it may have already eclipsed the US economy. China is pushing the frontiers of cutting-edge technology like 5G. This process is inevitable.
But what is not inevitable is the outcome of China displacing the US as regional or global superpower. This is an outcome that is FAR from certain. It is still too early to tell. The only thing we can say for now is that the regional strategic equation will become more and more symmetrical over time. As with buying new stocks/shares on the financial market, it is too early to count our chickens before they are hatched. Some views on China’s rise (Mahbubani’s included) tend to take the Whig view of history - “up and up and on and on”
The Chinese never tire of reminding us that China’s presence in Asia is a permanent geographic fact, while America’s presence is the product of a political calculation. This implies both enhanced threat and opportunity for the rest of East Asia (be nice to us, because you have to live with us for the rest of eternity). And that is true - what is our Plan B if America withdraws from the region? Without America, the balance of power in Asia cannot be maintained. But again, this myth is too simplistic. America’s presence in Asia is not as fragile as the Chinese would like us to think.
Asia is burgeoning with growth. In the next few decades the economic center of gravity is going to shift toward the Asia-Pacific. America has an interest in retaining access to this region, in economic and military terms. I do agree that China cannot be contained - it is so interdependent with America that America might as well try to contain itself as to contain China. But we should not underestimate the degree to which America has integrated and committed itself to the Asia-Pacific.
MYTH 3: This one I find the most ludicrous and at the same time the most hilarious. Just because I disagree with China’s stance on a SPECIFIC, SINGLE issue means that I must have been brainwashed by western media into being an anti-China dog? Hahahaha.
This is what is known as a false dichotomy. It is powerful because these dichotomies do exist, but they are a spectrum rather than a binary choice of A or B. China posits an illusory binary between itself and the West, and forces you to choose between them. If you are not A, then you must be B and ONLY B and nothing else. Substitute A and B with pro-China and pro-US, pro-CCP and pro-democracy, blah blah blah. You get the idea. This ignores all the nuances in between.
This myth is also the most insidious and dangerous one because it denies the existence of AGENCY on the part of small states. It denies that small states can ever act autonomously -that anything that we do must be driven by the hidden hand of Great Power competition.
Singapore’s policy can be characterized as strategic hedging. I will admit we lean slightly toward low-intensity “soft” balancing against China, but it is still more nuanced than “hard” balancing against China and “hard” bandwagoning with the US.
By the way, Singapore is not the only country practicing a hedging strategy. Duterte has recently taken to flirting with China; I don’t blame him, I think it’s a smart move. But he has also increased cooperation with Japan, and he has not abolished the alliance Treaty which formally commits the US to defend the Philippines in wartime. Thailand has grown closer toward China as well, buying Chinese tanks, but it is still a US ally. Even Myanmar: when Myanmar realized in the 2000s and early 2010s that it was growing more and more dependent on Chinese investment, infrastructure etc., what did it do? It initiated a rapprochement with the Obama Administration. Malaysia under Mahathir began to reassess a number of Chinese infrastructure projects in light of its indebtedness to China. The American 7th Fleet still calls at Malaysian ports. Vietnam is probably leaning even further toward the Balancing end of the spectrum than Singapore - the very existence of Vietnam as an independent entity is predicated on thousands of years of resisting subordination to China.
So, fellow Singaporeans, do not believe that we are alone in playing this delicate game of power-balancing. That is what China wants you to believe: that we are acting alone and inadvertently as a US proxy, when in reality we are making calculated choices to minimize risk and maximize gain.
MYTH 4: Yes, Singapore is a non-claimant state. We have no territorial claims in the South China Sea and we take no position on the claims of Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, China etc. But what we do have is an interest in FREEDOM OF NAVIGATION in the South China Sea (enshrined in international law, namely UNCLOS). We want our merchant ships carrying our imports and exports to be able to transition the South China Sea freely. Trade is the lifeblood of our free and open economy.
Now, some mainland Chinese might argue that China has not explicitly threatened the right of freedom of navigation in the area. They are right. China has not demanded we pay a toll or tariff for passing through the area, not yet anyway. Hopefully it never does. But China’s behavior of creating and militarizing artificial islands in the South China Sea has not exactly inspired confidence on the part of Southeast Asian states regarding its future behavior.
And in case you think our statement on the PCA’s verdict was somehow “extreme” or “new”, let me read out the statement to you:
Let me remind you that the PCA was the same court that ruled in favor of our dispute with Malaysia over Pedra Branca. So what would the implication be if we supported the PCA ruling for ourselves, but turned a blind eye to its ruling over the SCS? International law for me, but not for thee?
Note also that Singapore was not alone: Vietnam, Myanmar, and Malaysia also positively acknowledged or outright supported the ruling of the PCA. Why did we deserve to be singled out for coercion?
Non-alignment/neutrality is a PREFERENCE. It is not a solution. Singapore cannot prosper and be secure simply by pursuing a “hiding” strategy of laying low and hoping not to be noticed. I will be happy to elaborate if you disagree. We host the US military because we consider it productive to our security interests (and that of regional security) for America to maintain a regional presence. This is to provide a counterweight to China and give us strategic space to maneuver. It is NOT to contain China or obstruct its rise.
And while we are on the subject, we should note that the US military only maintains a purely rotational presence in Singapore. There are NO permanent US military bases or assets stationed here. The naval base which their aircraft carrier uses belongs to us. We should also further note that Singapore has NO formal treaty of alliance with America. In fact it is rumored that in 2003 America offered us the status of a major non-NATO ally - a formal security commitment from the US to defend Singapore…and we rejected them. Now, is that how we would behave if we were really American proxies?
“I am non-aligned in the sense that I do not want to be involved in power blocs…but when my security, Singapore’s survival, Singapore’s prosperity is threatened, I cannot be neutral” - Lee Kuan Yew
“Singapore has to take the world as it is, it is too small to change it. But we can try to maximise the space we have to maneuver among the big ‘trees’ in the region” - Lee Kuan Yew, One Man’s View of the World, 2013
MYTH 5: Kishore claimed that “now that LKY is no longer with us, we should change our behaviour significantly…we should be very restrained in commenting on matters involving Great Powers”. I agree with him that we should be circumspect, pragmatic, even cold-blooded, when it comes to dealing with Great Powers. We must tread carefully.
But has there been any fundamental change in Singapore’s policy toward China post-LKY? No. Our relationship with the US goes back to the 1990s. Likewise with China we have always (and I emphasize, we CONTINUE to) promote the engagement of China with the region and the world. China must come to terms with the world order, just as the world order must accommodate China.
The Chinese like to grumble about the good old days of LKY and how well he got along with them. Again, they are not wrong. But this is a form of historical cherry-picking, of selective memory. Remember that LKY was one of the only Asian leaders to go up against a CCP-backed communist united front and win. Remember also that Mao’s China issued frequent propaganda proclamations labelling him a “running dog” of the West.
Lee Kuan Yew’s views on China were not one-dimensional. They were complex and nuanced. They were tactful, yes, but honest and direct. He did not shy away from political incorrectness.
Let me emphasize again: I see the rise of China as a good thing in the long-term. It is not an ABSOLUTE good, but it is good. China is a FRIEND, even if friends can be pushy at times and we do not always agree with our friends about everything all the time. Singapore and China have no fundamental clash of core interests. Indeed, I think it is possible for our core interests to align with China. Not only with China, but also with the US, India, Japan, etc. Whether or not it aligns with China to a greater degree than with other powers is to be seen, and in large part decided, by China’s own behaviour.
But in any case if there is alignment, our lodestar must always be our NATIONAL INTEREST - Singapore’s own national interest - determined by Singaporeans’ own choices ALONE and no one else’s, undiluted by the manipulation of ANY foreign entity. And in case you think I’m only referring to China, go look at our handling of the 1988 Hendrickson Affair.
Huang Jing was only one manifestation of this. Foreign powers will continue to attempt to influence our policy. When they stick their fingers into our sovereign discursive space, we must continue to quietly, tactfully, but ruthlessly slice those fingers off.
EDIT: someone anonymous gilded me! Thank you so much!! I am really honored haha
EDIT 2: Platinum? Thanks so much anonymous! You are too kind!! I don’t even know what to do with it
EDIT 3: Posted in geopolitics. Prepared to be attacked by angry Chinese redditors https://www.reddit.com/geopolitics/comments/g7muc9/on_chinese_influence_operations_in_singapore/
EDIT 4: The post is back up on Quora again. Seems like moderators revised their earlier decision
I needed to step out for a while. Most of what happened after the match was a blur. Medical staff left me alone after they found out I only had minor wounds and instead focused on the more grievously injured. I doubted there were many survivors. I really hoped Hank was okay. I had no idea how that man could fight through those injuries. After I got out of the arena, I was hounded by rabid fans riding the high of the carnage. They still cheered me on even after the event, which had forced me to seek isolation outside along the shaded side of the warehouse. I needed time to think. I leaned back and gazed at the bustle of The Second’s Reverse Floor far above. At all of the lights flickering and drifting about. I could see the elevator I took down from here.
Tonight was filled with too many emotions. Both good and bad. The rush of authentic combat was something I haven't experienced in a long time, and never at the stakes I’d just endured. I knew being a Freelancer was dangerous, that’s why my parents spent a fortune on my augs in the first place, but I wondered if every job I’d end up doing would be this dangerous. Christ, this wasn’t even part of my current job, this was just me trying to find a setup! I was beginning to wonder if I was competent enough to be a Freelancer. The convoy heist was tomorrow. I spent all this time and I didn’t have any preparations done. Hell, I came here to find a Valkyrie and I might’ve ended up killing her or permanently damaging her in the process. She was my only lead. I might’ve really fucked this up.
I couldn’t afford to doubt myself though. Not after the money my parents sunk into me. Not after the eight years of arduous training I sunk into myself. Not after I sacrificed almost everything I held dear in life, including my body, so I could pursue this dream. I wanted this so bad, and I finally got it. This is where I wanted to be, so the only way I’d give up is if I went irreparably broke or died.
And with how much tiff I made in that match alone, I doubted it would be because of the former. With how things have been going tonight, however, the latter was seeming increasingly likely.
It felt amazing to be back in the ring again. The nostalgia was overbearing and I had to admit that the raving fans were an ego booster, even if I wasn’t in the mood to interact with them. Everything has felt so liquid and unsure since I stopped fighting here years ago. I was happier back then, it was all so clear. Win the next fight and be with my friends. Now for almost a decade I’ve been pursuing something I wasn’t sure would even work out. God I hoped things would fall into place.
The thrill from this return wasn’t worth it. I wish I could’ve left this part of my life in the past. Seeing what it was now, seeing who someone I once called family has turned into was like a perversion of my memories. It turned what was once bittersweet into heartbreak. I’m pretty sure Uncle G hates me, and now I hate him back. He wouldn’t put me through what he did if he still cared about me.
I let out a frustrated growl and looked down. I could see the drying blood still coating my foot and I remembered the man whose life I took. It was so violent and excessive and unnecessary yet it’s something I did. Something I did confidently. The scariest thing was how little it was bothering me. I’d anticipated having to do this one day. Freelancers are paid killers, and he was only the first of many if this played out right. Still, I thought it’d be harder to cope with. Maybe I was just a sociopathic bitch.
“Nala!” My name drew my attention to the corner I was hiding around. Aubrey peeked over, making sure I was here. Her tired face lit up upon seeing me. “Ah! I saw you hide over here, but I thought you needed some space.” Her face softened. “You seemed really off after the fight. Do you need more time to yourself?”
“Nah,” I shook my head. My thoughts weren’t good and I knew being alone wasn’t the best for me right now. “Some company sounds nice actually,” I told her, shifting my gaze back towards the sky.
“Ah,” she began, sliding up next to me and leaning against the wall too. I could feel her eyes on me. “What happened? I thought you didn’t want to fight?”
“I didn’t,” I confessed with a growl. “But I came here for the Valkyrie, and Big G was only gonna let me see her if I fought. I didn’t expect things to go the way they did though.”
“I was worried something like this would happen,” Aubrey admitted sympathetically. “G has been through a lot since you left. You’re not the only one who…” she stopped herself for a second but still continued. “Everything has worn on him. Nala, he’s not a good man anymore.”
“Yeah, I picked up on that,” I sneered before turning my head back to her. “You hear anything about how the Valkyrie and Hank are doing?”
Surprisingly, Aubrey snickered. “Oh I’m sure Hank’s fine. He’s been through much worse and recovered.” I raised a brow. The man was stabbed in the head and impaled. How much worse can you get? Then I remembered the cyborgs that got popped by the Valkyrie. I guess that’s worse. You can’t recover from that.
“As for the Valkyrie, I’m not sure. How hard did you hit her?”
“Hard,” I grimaced. The magical harpy didn’t give me much choice. “But that first uppercut she took would’ve ruined somebody unaugmented and she still got up from it. Either she has some dermal implants or Valkyries are naturally tougher, but I’m no expert. I’m hoping she pulls through.”
“Why’re you after her anyway? Is it a contract?”
I laughed. “Nah, actually. Can you believe it’s not? I heard she’s after the same target I am, and I need help.”
“So you’re going to ask the person you just kicked the shit out of for help?” she cringed.
“That’s the plan.”
“I hope there’s a plan B.”
The two of us went back inside to pull up a pair of stools at one of the food stalls and catch up some more. Well more Aubrey gushing about my fight. And I didn’t eat. My mind was too conflicted and filled with gory images. Hell, and despite a trip to the bathroom to try to clean up, I know I had some giblets stuck to me somewhere. Food was the last thing I wanted. I could sure use a drink though. And a long shower. But I’d have to wait awhile for that second one.
In the midst of our conversation, somebody tapped my shoulder and a soft voice caught my attention.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” Ma’am? I wasn’t nearly old enough for that shit. I turned, stunned to see the forest green hair and tattoos of the Valkyrie. She seemed off compared to when I’d seen her in the pit. Her hair was no longer flowing and her brown eyes were soft and gentle. Her tattoo like runes were a dull white instead of shining. She still wore the tank from the match, but had on a transparent jacket over it. About every second, a wave of bright color would wash over the piece of clothing, cycling through a selection of hues. Instead of normal leggings, now she wore a set of tight leather pants with combat boots. She also applied black lipstick and eyeliner. A bandage was wrapped around the top of her head, a little red seeping through. I couldn’t believe she was alright let alone up and moving already. What struck me most about her appearance, however, wasn’t the makeover or the fact that she wasn’t glowing. It was that she looked so meek. I noticed she was smaller than me in the fight, but now she just looked so… fragile.
“You’re up,” I forced out through my astonishment.
“Yeah, I heal very quickly,” she stated matter of factly in her quiet tone. “May I take a seat with you?”
“Sure?” I gestured to the empty stool to my left. She smiled politely and hopped onto the seat before getting the vendor’s attention to order. I gave Aubrey a glance and she just shot back a shrug, looking just as lost as I was.
Focusing back onto the Valkyrie, I noticed a small black battery on her back with a bunch of warnings of voltage and acid around the device. It was embedded in the jacket and was what the colored light spread from.
“I like your style,” I tried to break the ice once she finished ordering.
“Thanks! You look really nice yourself,” she returned with a sincere smile. “I love the hair.”
I was blown away. Not only that she was up and walking, but she was not at all what I expected. I must’ve sounded awkward as hell to her as I struggled to really take hold of the situation.
“I’m sorry,” I explained. “I’m just-”
“Surprised to see me kicking?” she interjected. “Yeah, I’m lucky. Even with my healing factor you really gave my noggin a good whollup,” she ended with a giggle. “That’s part of why I’m here, actually. I could tell you were holding back. I wanted to thank you for going easy on me even though I was trying really hard to kill you.” That last part really didn’t sound right in her tiny voice. “It’s not everyday I find somebody who can beat me, but you saw right through my limitations. I need to be more careful for people like you.”
“I wouldn’t say I went easy on you,” I confessed. “It was a struggle to stay ahead of you. But still I wasn’t trying to kill you. You’re…” I trailed off, picking my words carefully.
“I get it,” she assured with a wave of her hand. “I’m a rarity. Half the people in Titan think I’m a precious gem that should be protected. The other half wants to kill me simply for the status of being able to kill a Valkyrie.” She spoke so casually, like that wasn’t a huge deal.
“I meant I didn’t spare you for totally selfless reasons, if I’m being honest,” I explained. “Not that I wanted to kill you in the first place. I was coerced into that fight, and didn’t know what I was getting into.” I shook my head and continued. “Anyway, I need your help.”
“Oh?” she tilted her head in curiosity. “With what?”
“There’s a Daitech convoy moving through the lower floors sometime tomorrow hauling important cargo. A prisoner. I heard you were after it.”
“Oh...” she looked like she was thinking for a second. “Hm, if it was anyone else, I’d tell them I don’t know what they’re talking about. But after seeing you in action, bringing you along might not be a bad idea.” It sounded more like she was thinking out loud to herself. “I’ve been wanting to find more people to hit it with anyways, but I’ve been hesitant to ask anyone.”
“Social anxiety?” Aubrey offered jokingly.
“No,” she turned back to us. “I’m not sure who wants to murder me or not. Like I said, it seems like half the people out here want to end me.”
“Sheesh,” Aubrey cringed. “I know The Second isn’t the safest place, but I don’t think it’s that bad.”
“Not for you maybe,” she sighed. The vendor returned with the Valkyrie’s drink and she took a sip. I noticed his eyes lingering on her with a nervous expression. “It’s quite tiring. Strawberry Thunder had the perfect chance to kill me, however, and didn’t take it. I suppose I can trust you. And you seem quite skilled. I’m sure you’d be useful in pulling this off.”
“Please, call me Plan B if you’re going to call me anything,” I directed. “Strawberry Thunder is an old name I’d prefer to leave behind me. Plan B is my Freelancer alias.”
“Of course. You’re a Freelancer,” the Valkyrie chuckled and shook her head. “I’ve thought about getting into the profession. Call me Syra,” she introduced with a nod. Oh yeah, I remembered Big G calling her that in the match.
“Why’d you go with Plan B as an alias?” I heard Aubrey query.
“Freelancers usually work in teams,” I told her the spiel I’d heard over and over during training. “Whether temporary or permanent. Tackling a contract alone is often suicide. You have to find someone to cover your weaknesses. Most ops are done with stealth and subtlety, but I’ve never been so good at that. I’m good at rushing in and doing damage, so when stealth goes out the window, I’m Plan B.”
“So I can assume information gathering isn’t within your skill set?” Syra teased.
“That’s why I’m here,” I told her. “I heard you might have some information on the target. The fact that you can blow shit up with your mind is just a bonus.”
“You’re in luck, I know some, yes,” Syra established. “What do you know?”
“Only that it’s a Daitech convoy going through The Third tomorrow. I don’t know exactly where or when it’s supposed to be moving or anything else for that matter.”
“Well some new things I can tell you is that the convoy begins its journey at 17:00 starting from the Lyndon Rail Yard and is scheduled to arrive at the Lenore Raven Sky Port at 18:20. I’ve already scouted all possible routes and the only one fast enough to line up with that time frame has two points of interest that we could use. A small overpass over the highway, or the construction site of a casino along the side of the highway.
“The overpass I feel is more risky because of the lack of cover and obvious point of attack, but the casino has its own slew of issues to bypass. The most pressing one being the crew stationed there. I doubt they’d let two civilians just stroll onto their site with intentions of starting a firefight with a Corp.”
I blinked, trying to take that all in. “Wow you really did your homework.”
“It pays to be prepared,” she held her head up proudly and smiled before that pride turned into embarrassment. “Although I have no information on the vehicles or numbers we’re dealing with. And I feel we’d be going in woefully under gunned.”
“Maybe I can help out with that last bit,” I offered. I’d already pulled one burned bridge out of the ashes, albeit in a much worse state than when it was left in the fire. What was the harm in dredging another one from its wreckage?
“Aubrey.” The stocky woman looked at me, gulping down some noodles from her bowl. “Where can I find the Street Breed these days?”
The old factory was massive, and very much still functional. I stood across the barren street of the multistory, rectangular structure. Large pyres of smoke shot out from stacks of obelisks lining the roof above. The building was lined with windows emitting dull light and, in the silence of the night, you could hear the hum of multiple air conditioning units that were latched onto the place. The Breed must be doing very well for themselves if this was their base of operations.
I felt bad leaving Aubrey again. Only because I felt like she thought I was never going to return to the Underdown now that my business there was finished. It wasn’t finished. I wasn’t going to let Big G get off scot free. I was going to watch that place burn. It was no place of happiness to me anymore. I’d be back soon.
For now though, Syra had followed my bike in an unassuming grey sedan. Something she said she stole from someone on The First to keep a low profile. She promised they deserved it. The car contrasted greatly from my vibrant, bulky motorcycle and considering what she was, that was for the best. If news of her existence wasn’t well known before, her appearance at a fighting arena would cause Titan to explode with rumors. Blending in was the best idea.
The Valkyrie stood beside me, gazing at the factory as well. Her jacket changed its sheen from its previous see through form to a solid, glossy black, making it look like vinyl. She wore a pair of leather gloves to cover what little runes ran along her hands and zipped up, popping her collar to try to hide the markings on her neck and chest. I suggested she get a scarf to mask herself further. She took it into consideration but we didn’t have time to shop for accessories. Well, at least, not those kinds.
“The people here are trustworthy?” Syra asked, uncertainty in her gentle voice.
“I’m not sure after seeing Big G again,” I admitted. “But we need guns and gear, and these are the only contacts I know that can provide us with both.” I stepped forward waving for her to follow. We reached a reinforced door along the side of the place and I gave it a hardy knock. The metal on metal echoed loudly through the emptiness of the outside.
“Are you certain somebody will be here this late?” Syra’s eyes flicked around.
“They wouldn’t leave their assets unguarded. They’ll have somebody here at night.”
Right on cue, a small slit in the door about eye height slid open to reveal a blue, skeptical gaze from the other side.
“What do you want?” An unfamiliar voice interrogated curtly.
“We’re here to see Pup,” I informed him and the eyes grew more narrow.
“You groupies or something?” He didn’t wait for us to answer. “He ain’t here, he’s at home sleepin.”
“We aren’t groupies,” I growled, annoyed. “I’m an old friend of his. I need to speak with him. It’s important.” The man on the other side sized me up, still unsure.
“Old friend, huh? Give me a sec.” The slit closed and once again we were bathed in silence.
After only a moment the slit reopened and this time the blue eyes were replaced with what looked like two grey plates. There was a gasp from the other side of the door and the slit closed once more before the door swung open.
On the other side was an older man, looking dazed. He wore a leather jacket that covered most of his upper body, but his lower half had grey cargo shorts that showed off primitive, heavy set prosthetic legs that released steam around his joints. His head was adorned with spiky grey hair that extended into a pointy beard. A black bandanna with a circuit design wrapped around his forehead and his eyes were covered with a pair of metal plates. They somehow exaggerated his astounded expression.
“Nala?” He croaked out finally.
“Hey, Rot,” I returned with an awkward smile. “I’m back.”
My world was engulfed in the second hug of the night. A warm embrace that I couldn't help but return. I couldn’t have found someone better right off the bat. Rot was the biggest sweetheart back in the day. A little vulgar and cocky, but at the same time courteous and kind. He was one of mine and Pup’s biggest supporters when we got involved and probably one of the main reasons I was able to get so close to the MC.
After a good few seconds, Rot finally pulled away laughing in embarrassment.
“Sorry,” he apologized, “I just wasn’t expecting you to… well still be alive!”
“Well I’m here,” I announced, still feeling weird. I didn’t think I’d see him again.
“Come in! Come in!” the old biker stepped further in and waved for us to follow. We obliged. “Either of you want a beer?” he called out to me and Syra as he noticed her. He walked around the corner, ducking into another room. “Man I thought this would be a boring shift…” I could hear him murmur to himself as he went.
“Yeah!” I shouted after him.
“None for me, thank you,” Syra told him nervously at the same time I spoke.
To our side sat a young man in similar biker clothes, with short black hair and a septum ring. He eyed us suspiciously without a word. I did my best to ignore him for the small moment we had to deal with his stare, but I saw Syra sneer back at him, challenging him. The man didn’t seem to care.
Rot came back with two cans of Sierra Sunrise. My favorite brand! I couldn’t believe he remembered! He handed both of us a can, Syra looking almost offended. I eagerly opened mine up and took a sip while Syra looked at hers like it was a wounded puppy.
“So I bet you’re wanting to talk to Pup, eh?” Rot asked with a smile. “The boss’ll be thrilled to see you!” I felt a pit grow in my stomach and I took a deep gulp of my drink. I wasn’t so sure. Rot had always been an optimist, but I doubted Pup wouldn’t feel any resentment towards me after I ditched everyone. I know it must’ve hurt him more than anyone else. That was my biggest regret about what I did.
“Yeah, I bet,” I beamed back at him, masking my worry as best as I could.
“Yo, Rot, who’re these bimbos?” the young dude to our side snarled. Rot’s expression did a 180 and slowly adjusted his gaze to the guy with the attitude.
“I get why you’re distrustful, prospect, but this is the boss’s ex old lady, and a good friend of the club. So show some fucking respect.”
“If she’s Pup’s ex then I don’t see why she’s important enough to let her inside when we’re on alert,” the prospect shot back without skipping a beat.
“Hey, Nala’s done more for the Street Breed than you can fuckin imagine! She was practically one of us at one point!”
“Then where’s she been while we’ve been dealing with the Corps and The Pack?” It didn’t hit me until now just how tired they both looked. It helped explain why the prospect was so irritated. Rot’s cheerful attitude hid most of his exhaustion, but he didn’t carry himself the way he had before. He always had a pep to his step, but now he moved sluggishly and had a slight hunch. Of course, that could’ve just been him getting older, but I think there’s more to it.
“That’s a good question actually,” Rot turned back to me. “Though it could do with a little less sass. Where have you been? Does it have to do with that new steel you’re packin? Don’t think I didn’t notice that.”
“I’ve been training,” I told him honestly. “I’m a Freelancer now.”
“You let a Freelancer in here!?” The prospect rose, fury in his eyes. “I don’t care what kind of connection to us she had before, who knows who she could be working for!!”
“Gecko, calm down!” Rot snapped back. “You really don’t understand what’s happening here.”
“I understand you’re too trusting, old man!” And with the flip of a switch, the prospect, Gecko’s face went white. “Oh shit.”
Rot, to his credit, remained neutral towards the younger man’s outburst. Yet as he stepped closer to Gecko, the prospect trembled.
“Look, Rot, I’m just wor-” he was cut off by Rot’s fist barreling into his face. The one swift punch was all that was needed to knock the prospect back in his chair, out like a light.
Rot shook his hand and flexed his fingers like he wasn’t expecting himself to hit Gecko that hard.
“Sorry about that,” Rot apologized. “Normally I wouldn’t resort to something like that so quickly, but it’s been a long few days and I really didn’t feel like dealing with his shit.”
“I’m not going to complain about talking without him,” Syra assured, still staring the unconscious man down.
“Yeah he seemed like an asshole,” I added.
“He’s just on edge,” Rot defended the prospect. “Like I said, it’s been a long few days. Anyway, you’re a Freelancer now! Wow! Given our trade, I’m guessing you’re here on business then?”
“Yeah,” I admitted, still feeling that pit in my stomach. “But I do want to see how Pup is doing.”
“I bet you do,” Rot chuckled. “He’s at home getting some rest, but I don’t think he’ll be upset at me for waking him when he finds out you’re here.” He pulled out a phone before adding. “Then we can talk business.”
Time went by agonizingly slow since Rot made the call to Pup. The old biker didn’t mention why Pup needed to rush over here, but he’d made it clear that it was good news. The three of us sat in a lounge area, Rot standing behind a bar and me sitting on a stool. Syra sat a little ways away tucking herself into the corner of a couch, shifting uncomfortably. She seemed paranoid.
Meanwhile, I was filled with dread. The closer it got to me seeing Pup again, the more scared I got. I loved Pup once. I might still, but I don’t know the person he was now. I used to be closer to him than anyone else I’ve ever known. And then I left. I left when he needed me the most. After Zephos arrested half the Street Breed and his dad, who was the leader of the club, Bison, got a life sentence. Pup had to take the reins and lead the struggling club at only twenty three, and I vanished without a word.
God, he’ll be furious at me. Will he hate me? Does he even want to see me again? I wish Rot told him about me over the phone so I could hear it from Rot instead of seeing it on Pup’s face when he gets here. What would he even think about my new body? Would he be disgusted? I tried to drown my thoughts out in whiskey and conversation with Rot, but it wasn’t working.
“So who’s your friend?” Rot asked in a friendly tone, gesturing toward the Valkyrie.
“That’s Syra,” I told him. “She’s not a Freelancer, but she’s skilled and helping me with my current contract.”
“Like hired help or something?”
“Not really.” That never occurred to me until now. “Hey, Syra?” I grabbed her attention. “Why are you after the convoy anyway?”
“Oh,” she began. “I need to talk to the prisoner.”
“That’s… vague. You’re not gonna kill them are you?” She gave me an earnest laugh, letting her loosen up for just a second.
“No, no. I assure you I won’t harm them. They were subdued while investigating Daitech and I believe they found out information I want.”
“Well okay then, as long as I can safely deliver them after.” I turned back to Rot who’s expression had turned dire.
“Daitech, huh?” His tone was more serious than I ever heard before. “So this involves them,”
“Uh, yeah. Is that a problem?”
“Considering they’re breathing down our necks right now, it seems pretty fuckin suspicious that a Freelancer shows up talking about knocking over a convoy of theirs.” Oh no, not this shit again.
“Oh my god, please, Rot,” I groaned, really not wanting to go down this road for a second time tonight. “Big G already mistook me for Corp and tried to kill me. I’m really not in the mood.”
“You’ve been to the Underdown? Why did he think you were Corp?” Rot interrogated accusingly. Oh shit, I fucked up.
“Because,” I sighed in resignation and waved to Syra, who looked up nervously. “I was looking for her.”
“Why’d he think the Corp wanted her?”
The Valkyrie and I locked eyes. She looked doubtful, but I gave her a nod. I could tell she still didn’t like it, but she reached back for the small battery on her back and clicked a button. The black, glossy material faded into its transparent form.
I could see Rot’s brow raise when he caught sight of her runes, astounded.
“Is she legit or are those only tattoos?”
Without the need to coax her, Syra’s eyes began to glow like they did when I was in the pit with her. Her runes illuminated in a color matching her glare while her green hair flowed and sparked with energy.
“H-holy shit…” Rot stammered. Once she decided the biker had his fill, Syra’s light simmered and her hair settled. She reached back to turn her jacket to its dark sheen once more.
“You realize,” Rot struggled, still clearly taken aback, “Almost all of the Valkyries are under Corporate control.”
“I’m not,” Syra took her turn to argue. “I went to Big G to earn some cash for supplies in this heist. Cage fighting sounded like easy money with my abilities. He promised me a fair sum if I just appeared in a surprise match to boost the Underdown’s reputation. He didn’t want me to stick around after that since he knew the Corp would come looking for me.” Her eyes were no longer anxious. Instead her anxiety was replaced with determination. “I can promise you, sir, I don’t serve anyone but myself, and my goals will harm no one but the Corps themselves.”
The look in her eyes would’ve been enough for me. There was something about the Valkyrie that struck me. Looking at her now almost made me think we were back at the Underdown, slugging it out again. I could tell Rot was still reluctant, however, but he relented.
“Fine,” he concluded. “I really want to believe you. So I’ll believe you. I hope I’m not killing this club by doing this.”
“Rot,” I promised, taking his organic hand in my cold, steel one. “I swear this’ll be fine.”
The next few minutes were spent with small talk. The cheerful energy Rot displayed before we mentioned Daitech was gone though. And it only further served the growing worry inside me. Each second that ticked by brought me closer and closer to Pup.
Then the door opened.
“Rot, why is Gecko pa-” his eyes met mine and I could see those beautiful blue orbs light up. He looked so different. So much older. His short, black hair was messy and faded. I could see wiring and neural implants that weren’t there before. He had the new addition of gauges and wiring going down his shallow cheek down from his eye to his chin, telling me he had some sort of optical augment. He had a short, unkempt beard that I’m pretty sure he had because he didn’t find the time to shave. And much like Rot and Gecko, he looked so tired. Dark creases rested below his eyes, and his eyes themselves were those of somebody that had seen too much. Yet he still held himself tall and confidently.
I noticed he wore a messy flannel underneath the same jacket he had years ago. A jacket that had gotten many new additions much like the man who wore it. It was reinforced with armor. I could see the shapes of the plates beneath the old leather. More plates lined the arms and wiring ran down beneath the armpit and up to a small flashlight mounted on his shoulder. My gaze traveled down, seeing worn jeans and black combat boots with a long holster on his side. The wood grip of an old lever action rested within.
He looked ready for action. I wondered if it was because of Daitech or if he was always this armed and armored now.
I don’t know how long we just stared at each other like that, it felt like eons, but in reality it was probably just for a second. Eventually, Pup broke the silence, his wide eyes settling into a more neutral, tired look.
“Nala?” his voice was more gravelly than I remembered. “If I knew you showed up I would’ve cleaned myself up a little.”
Jokes were a good sign right? I could feel my heart pounding.
“Yeah, you look like shit,” I replied with a playful laugh. Fuck! The first thing I tell him after all this time is that he looks awful! But he gave me a small smile. It faded back to an indifferent stare.
“So, what do you want?” His voice was monotone and uncaring. I felt that anxiety creeping through me, causing me to stammer.
“I-I’m a Freelancer,” I told him in a shaky voice, taken aback by his tone.
“We need guns and armor,” Syra interjected for me, looking at me mildly confused. She didn’t understand my situation.
“They’re tipping a Daitech convoy tomorrow,” Rot added. “And don’t worry, I’ve talked to them already, they’re clean.”
“Yeah, what they said,” I finished, embarrassed. Pup stared at no one in particular for a moment, thinking.
“I’m gonna guess you need some higher level gear then,” Pup pondered, pulling a pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket along with a lighter and lighting one up. When’d he start smoking? “How much money do you two got?”
“Between the two of us,” Syra answered, “we have a fair bit of tiff.”
“Well you’re in luck then,” Pup took a huff of his stick and blew out a puff of smoke. “We got our hands on a fresh shipment of valuable Daitech loot.” He seemed so business. I noticed he didn’t put his eyes on me since the initial shock of seeing me.
“If you’ll follow me,” he began walking towards another door, gesturing for us to come with him. Syra and I both rose, but Rot stayed behind at the bar, looking sympathetic.
We stepped through the door and into a much wider area. Conveyors and machines of all kinds surrounded us, all of which were currently on, filling the air with sounds of manufacturing. Catwalks were sprawled out above, all barren and connecting to various rooms on a second floor. I would’ve been more curious about it all if my mind wasn’t so caught up on Pup. I could see the man in front of me dropping embers from his cig, using the concrete below our feet as an ashtray.
From behind, I could see the patches on his back. The sharp stylization of Street Breed labeling the jacket along with the MC’s logo of the side profile of a brown wolf head snarling and an automatic rifle crossing behind it. I couldn’t help but give a little smirk seeing he was still shorter than me. It wasn’t very surprising, not many people were taller than me, but I found it amusing. He was larger than Syra, at least.
We stepped into an office that’d been converted to an armory. Pup unlocked the door and I could see the walls were lined with racks of guns of all shapes and sizes. Some were so large they looked like they were meant to be mounted on vehicles. Along the wall adjacent to the entrance hung a half dozen uniform outfits. They were all dull grey, heavy industrial looking coats padded out with thick steel armor. Matching pants hung beside each and even armored boots sat below every outfit. Gas masks were displayed above every one as well. A rifle that was partially dismantled laid across an old desk with various tools scattered about underneath a lit lamp.
“Shit,” Pup began, looking over the parts of the weapon. “Looks like Roo’s been playing with the goods.” It was clear he was thinking out loud and wasn’t directed to us. “Anyway, this is all our high end equipment courtesy of Daitech. If you’re planning on going stealthy, you might want to get a couple sets of these.”
He pointed towards the armored suits. “These are Daitech Covert Heavy Miner Combat Rigs. They’re meant for combat inside industrial and mining areas. Been seeing a lot of these being moved around for some reason. They’d still be very effective in the city, and would keep you masked. The armor covers most of your body, the masks themselves have tinted visors, and they have a setting to dull your colors so you don’t have to worry about your hair. They’re a thousand tiff per set. As for weapons, take a look around and see if something strikes you.”
He was so straightforward with his selling points, and still refused to look directly at me. With an internal sigh, I instead focused on the selection around me. I liked the .45 I kept on my hip, but no doubt this heist called for something with more kick. Convoy usually meant armored vehicles and lots of guards. I wanted something big, and thankfully size and power wasn’t a hindrance to me anymore. My augmented limbs, enhanced muscles, and reinforced bones meant I was several times stronger than any all organic human.
My eyes settled on a long, boxy rifle. It looked to be a long ranged weapon if the scope told me anything. The rounds it used must’ve been gigantic with its thick clip size and it sported a vertical hand grip for stability. It was also painted a soft, dark blue which I thought looked nice.
I hefted it off the wall and turned to Pup, who for the first time since he walked into the lounge, looked me in the eyes. “How much for this?”
“Ah, the Daitech .50 cal marksman rifle. Semi auto featuring an adjustable zoom scope, vertical grip, and laser sight. That’d run you about fifteen hundred.” I was really happy I got that extra spending cash from the Underdown. “You sure you want that?” Pup asked, still masking any emotions towards me. “Nobody here has the augs to properly use that thing. Think you can handle it?”
“Trust me, it won’t be a problem.”
I sat in the lounge with Pup. I told him I wanted to talk. Syra had already left with a newly purchased AR as well as her armor. She told me she had a safe place to hide out until tomorrow and we made plans to meet up at the east elevator to the Third at noon. Now I stood at the bar with my freshly bought rifle leaning against the counter beside me. A case filled with my armor and a dozen clips for my rifle, running me fifty tiff each rested to my other side. Big G more than paid for the gear for this heist. At least something good came out of the Underdown mess.
“So,” Pup began after pouring us both a shot of whiskey from the other side of the counter. “I don’t think this talk will go how you’d hoped.”
“That’s fine,” I told him, taking the shot and downing it. The burn helped me a little. “I wasn’t hoping for much anyway.” We both stood in silence for a little bit while we tried to articulate our feelings.
“This was a really bad time,” the biker started finally. “For you to show up I mean. Daitech has been on our asses, we’re all worn out and on edge. A Freelancer showing up on our doorstep doesn’t help. The others will likely be pissed once they find out, and it’ll just add to their stress when they find out it was you.”
“I’m sorry,” I gave him. “I didn’t know. I didn’t have anyone else to turn to with this kind of deal.” There was another bout of silence. “That’s not all I’m sorry for. I know I fucked you over and-”
“Save it,” Pup snapped back. I flinched at the response. I think he was harsher than he meant to be, because once he saw my reaction he softened and gave me an apologetic look. “You hurt me a lot. More than I could ever say.” He poured another shot and twirled it in his hand for a moment, searching for the right words. “It’s nice to see you’re okay after so long. I worried about you so much. But, Nala,” he looked into my bright green eyes, “I don’t love you anymore.” I knew that’d be the case, but it still stung to hear those words. I clenched my hand so hard the shot glass in my grasp cracked and I let my gaze drift down to it. “And, frankly, I don’t think you’d love who I am now. I don’t know what’s gone on with you in the past eight years and, honestly, I’m not sure I wanna know.”
“I…” I fished for words. I don’t know what I was expecting. Nothing good. But even knowing that, hearing what he was saying was no less difficult. It felt like all of my nervousness that’d been piled up since I got here exploded in a nauseating wave of depression. It was like my chest wanted to cave in on itself and I couldn’t think of what I wanted to say.
“Got nothing then?” Pup asked, disappointed. I drew a blank, all I could focus on was the emotions washing over me. “Alright,” the biker leader walked around the counter. “I’m going back to bed.”
As he reached the door, however, he turned around. I gave him a side glance as I propped up my forehead with my palm.
“Just because I don’t love you like I did, doesn’t mean I don’t still care about you.” He opened the door but didn’t leave yet. “I know somebody else that’ll want a stake in your op. I’ll give him a call and give you a little more backup. And once all this shit’s blown over…” He paused tentatively. “Come by again. Maybe we could start over as friends... Get some sleep, Nala.”
Then he left.
[index]