Excerpt (Obsidian)

**More rough draft, unedited stuff. Obsidian is a cyberpunk retelling of Beauty and the Beast. This is a little portion of chapter two and before you dive into this, you need to know that Obsidian has a pulse, known as The Hour, that vibrates from the center of the the city. The whole thing is covered by a giant dome, for reasons that you’ll already know from having read chapter one. Also, and this is SUPER important–Reis is The Beast. He is a regular human guy in a jazzed up suit and is believed by everyone to be an immortal creature. Just fyi. So, there you go…enjoy**

Chapter Two

The air, weighted with the scent of sweat and smoke, clawed at Reis’ senses. The auction house wasn’t the sort of place that encouraged eye contact, which made it easier for Reis to view the evening’s events from the shadows. Cain, the object of his immediate mission, sat at the front of the room at one of the worn pub tables that lined the outskirts, his chair tipped back against the wall on two legs, a cigarette held loosely in his hand. An ember smoldered at the beginning of a long line of ash that threatened at any moment to fall into the lap of his tailored pinstripe suit. To say he stood out among the other less well-to-do bidders would be something of an understatement.

Three women, too healthy in appearance to be there for any reason other than failing businesses with no funds for better stock, huddled at the back of the house, closest to the exit. Outside of Cain and the women, Reis saw nothing but a gyrating mass of sooty faces and unkempt hair. Their chatter; talk of various ailments, sexual conquests or money, died against the striking of The Hour.

Reis reached for the pillar nearest him and held his breath, an action he’d done with alarming frequency over the course of the last three weeks. The pulse, on occasion, now triggered mild headaches—not every day or even every other day—but often enough. He supposed the timing could be coincidence. Seeing as how The Hour had always brought with it pleasant sensations, feelings of centeredness and peace, it was the likeliest explanation. Still, the increasing rate of occurrence concerned him.

The auctioneer, after waiting a moment for the vibrations to dissipate, called everyone’s attention with the slam of his gavel. Reis watched a trembling blonde led to the platform. The black circlet on her right wrist indicated that her previous owner was now deceased. He (or she) either owed the Order or the city of Obsidian itself, the debt reconciled at the deceased’s incineration. Unfortunately for the fair-haired beauty, this meant she’d become property of the government. Private trade would have led to a much kinder fate.

She gave the audience a practiced demure smile and tugged at her worn blue skirt. The look in her eyes begged for those who would treat her well to notice her, and for those who wouldn’t, not to.

Cain leaned forward to brush the ash off his pants and scoot the ash tray to his side of the table, but made no move to bid on her. After a brief battle, the bidding ended at two thousand opals from one of the women.

Next up, a middle-aged man with a good many working days ahead of him. Brown threadbare pants hugged his bulky thighs; his shirt, fitted a wide chest and broad shoulders. He went quickly. Finally, after what could have equated to a short eternity for Reis, something caught Cain’s attention.

“Item #15, female aged 23 years, unsuitable for labor. Licensed for parts…or recreation, for those of you with a baser nature.” The auctioneer winked, a lascivious grin spread across his rubbery lips, highlighting the perspiration that glistened on the rolls of his chin below. He cleared his throat and continued. “Weight…”

Reis drowned the auctioneer out and moved positions, skirting through the darkness like it was composed of his own personal pathways. Cain leaned forward and allowed all four legs of his chair to touch the ground, intent on what he’d come here for—what he’d violated probation for.

The girl on stage, taller than average, appeared to be 5”9 at least. A little on the thin side, she had long matted hair—couldn’t tell what color. Her skin was covered in dirt, visible marks on her chest and shoulders, two of them wound like vines up the slender column of her neck. One of the two made its way across her cheek in an angry line. It reminded Reis of his own scars. A delicate mouth, set below a defined nose and empty gray eyes, gave no hint of human emotion. Reis wondered why Cain had any interest in her, specifically enough to warrant risking his financial future over coming to the auction house.

Reis had turned the corner, fully prepared to snatch Cain by the shoulders and drag him back to where he belonged, when his heart stopped.

“…registered under the name Ember. Bidding to begin at three hundred opals.”

Cain put out his cigarette and with a staggering measure of nonchalance given the gravity of the action, lifted his hand.

Voices echoed in Reis’ mind. Visions flashed before his eyes, replaying for him the untold number of days he’d watched his little sister—now dead—playing with her imaginary friend, Ember.

Another coincidence…nothing more.

The bidding went up to four hundred opals…then four hundred and fifty…then five hundred, when a lull in the bidding ensued. Cain rose.

“Five hundred and fifty,” Reis barked. “Plus three hundred on top of whatever the crawler bids.” He stepped out of the alcove to the sound of breath being collectively drawn. The surprise on their faces matched the rush of uncertainty in Reis’ gut.

What am I doing?

“Three thousand opals.” Cain yanked his crisp black shirt, with both hands, straight from beneath his jacket and narrowed his eyes.

The girl, Ember, stood unflinching. Reis thought that when he met her eyes he would see in them either unadulterated fear, or else some restrained manifestation of it. But when she lifted her head to look at him, he instead saw defeat and resignation. It was like looking into a mirror.

The auctioneer kept a steady gaze on Reis, but his bulbous fingers clenched the podium with a telltale white knuckled grip. “Father?”

“I assume you can add. Three thousand three hundred and so forth.”

Cain’s nostrils flared, his lips curled into a soundless snarl. For a moment it appeared as though he wouldn’t fight the inevitable. “Four thousand!” he spat.

Reis countered with a mouth full of illusionary blade-sharp teeth.

The auctioneer swallowed hard and looked at Cain. “Four thousand six hundred, sir?”

“Twenty thousand.”

The auctioneer looked as though he might pass out. Reis indicated, with a single nod, his agreement to continue.

This did it for Cain. He bit his fist, seemingly in an effort to keep whatever was on his tongue from being spoken. Then, when Reis didn’t relent, Cain pushed his way back into the anonymity of the other bidders. He was lucky Reis no longer felt inclined to follow through with the due course of the crawler’s actions.

“Twenty Thousand three hundred opals. Once. Twice. Sold!”  The auctioneer grinned, his pleasure over the unbelievable turn of events obvious in the sound of his voice and the sudden joyous jerk in his movements. It made Reis’ stomach raw—the very notion that humans could do this to their own kind.

The auctioneer grabbed Ember’s arm and started to send her off with two workers to be processed when Reis stopped him.

“She comes with me now,” Reis snapped. “You can settle up with my estate.” He intended to take her hand or lead her off of the platform some other way, but as soon as the auctioneer loosened his grip, she moved to stand beside Reis like an automaton. He turned toward her, noticing the glint of light that had disrupted the shadows on her face from the window to their left, and saw a fleeting glimpse of green behind the gray.

Contacts?

Couldn’t be. Colored contacts were used by the wealthiest crawlers to cover the natural gray of their eyes, not the other way around. No one had been born to the contrary in the last six hundred years or so.

He didn’t question, at this point, whether she’d follow him but he didn’t want to take any chances. He retracted the claws on his right hand and took hers, then ducked through a back passage to his transporter. Once in their seats, he turned the dome light on to see her better.

“You’re wearing contacts?”

She nodded.

“Take them out.”

She did as he’d asked in silence, rubbing her eyes for a moment before turning back to him. Sure enough—bright green.

No wonder Cain was so interested.

“Where did you come from?”

She hesitated, then patted her throat. The action seemed to irritate her skin and she scratched at it.

Gods. She’s mute.

“Can you write?”

She shook her head.

Reis sighed, a string of foul language coming to mind, but because of the voice alteration device it came out as a growl. Ember spun, her back hitting the door with a dull thud. He considered taking part of his suit off, or at least telling her, but it was too complicated a maneuver to do in a small space and he couldn’t be sure she’d understand his explanation. So, he did the only thing he knew how to do well.

“Sit down and buckle your restraint belt.”

*****

Ember could write just fine. She could also speak at one point, months ago—the last time she’d felt the warmth from the real sun.

The beast growled low, and it went all the way to her bones. She didn’t realize she’d jumped till he said something.

“Sit down and buckle your restraint belt.”

She obeyed—not because she particularly wanted to, but because there weren’t many options on the table. Her skin burned from the chemical used to create the false scarring on her chest and neck, her eyes felt as if they were covered with tiny slivers of glass and her mobility was limited due to the extensive bruising to her back and upper arms.

The beast navigated the transporter through the idolatrous roads of Obsidian’s commercial strip with mute disinterest in her presence. His breathing came slow and even—a constant rumble from deep within his chest. It sounded like the groan of thunder that could be heard through the holes in the dome in the Outer Slums. She was eight years old the first time she’d heard that sound and even now, after everything, she could still feel the cold rainwater on her skin as she’d stood on the roof that day with her father. Three months later her father and mother both were dead, brutally murdered, by the creature who would become her master.

She held her hands still for a short while, not wanting to do anything to further anger her captor, but the freedom to move proved fatal to her self-control and she reached to pick at the scar on her cheek. It took a second, but once she’d worked it loose, it peeled off in a huge web that ran all the way to her chest and down both shoulders. She flinched again as the window to her right rolled down.

The beast kept his eyes on the road, but she caught the movement of his hand as it moved away from the controls.

The cool night air soothed as it brushed over her irritated skin and she leaned to feel more of it on her face. The garish neon lights overhead blurred as her eyes filled with tears, and she turned to hide the damaging admission. The Order had taken everything from her, everyone, and at one time she’d fought it—her death—but that storehouse of strength and will had deteriorated to nothingness. Where she’d once wanted to live, she now longed for it all to be over. The Beast had purchased her to bring about that end, and The Order would be assured once again of the continued safety of its secrets. She should have been relieved. Yet, a sudden surge of grief clutched at her heart, the reason having nothing to do with losing her life, but with a simple, meaningless act—he’d taken her hand.  Not her arm or neck or any of the other places she’d been grabbed and pulled and dragged by, and he had done so with what must have been imagined care. It was the single most painful touch she could remember.

*****

Reis did his best to focus on the task at hand, but his shock at seeing her peel off the scarring outweighed his interest in driving, so he switched to auto steer and sat back in his seat. As they slowed to turn a corner, eviscerating shrieks of laughter or displeasure—which one, he didn’t care to discern—filled his ears from the window he’d opened for the girl and for a fleeting moment he considered pulling over and sending her off into the obscurity of the inner city. It wouldn’t take long for her to find a way to remove the telling circlet from her wrist and make a place for herself among the illiterate denizens of Obsidian’s lower-middle caste. The fact that she had colored eyes or that someone wanted her dead meant nothing to him, not when it came down to it. His charitable act of keeping her out of Cain’s hands had already been accomplished.

But when Reis spared a sideways glance at her, she suddenly seemed so small, so lost, and his fatiguing assertion that everything in life was wholly without meaning, lost its certainty.

She had her back turned to him, her arms hugged across the knees she’d brought to her chest. Though she was mute, he could still hear the quick, shallow, gasps of air she drew in. Her bare feet were tucked partially beneath her, revealing raw and wounded skin. The plain black clothing she’d been given didn’t fit properly and in the position she sat in, it draped around her like a blanket. When she shifted, her shirt slipped off one shoulder, exposing her back and the dark bruising the fabric had concealed.

Who did this to you?

Reis had seen cruelty to slaves before. He didn’t care. He hadn’t cared in a long time, what happened to anyone or anything. Not since his sister’s death. Something died in him that night, the moment he could no longer hear her screaming for him. He’d turned to his mother, a woman he’d once perceived as strong because of her refusal to show emotion, to see the stark acceptance on her face and everything had crumbled around him then. She’d echoed a variation of his father’s chilling words, it’s his duty

And nothing would ever be the same.

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