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 contempt for the flesh [18+], maxberg goes to vegas
bird
 Posted: Aug 21 2016, 03:04 AM
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There are three of them.

Big men, dressed too well for a bad neighbourhood thick with locals, their jackets weighted tell-tale heavy to one side. They follow him up yucca-planted sidestreets and up heat-cracked pavements, pausing when he does, nonchalant if he glances at them, skirting past decrepit charging stations and neon cowgirl bars like shadows underfoot. In the army, in the old days, there would be eight pairs of eyes to reach to through the neural implant in the back of his skull, a kind of sight-without-seeing; there would be seventy kilograms of SN-46 body armour to hide behind, anchored to the magnetic tether points still in sitting in his bones.

Max has groceries in his hands now. Once, one of them almost meets his eyes in the reflective glass pane of an old storefront window: we see you. He lets them follow him to the no-name motel, pausing, just for a breath, with his key in the door and his knuckles whitening, still beneath a halo of moths beating themselves senseless against the light overhead. I know.

He isn’t a local either. The final instructions, delivered a week ago, say wait here - here, in this rathole, seemingly for no reason in particular. He sticks around anyway. Wait here. Lay low. We’ll contact you first. Ahead, Mojave Road curls in onto itself in the shadow of the freeway, blistered by the desert heat. Residential neighbourhood, or something like it: motels like this one with only John and James on the register, empty concrete lots overtaken by weeds. The night is cooling, almost tepid now, stained sodium-yellow and hanging monsoon-heavy over the palm trees. A distant bassline oozes from across an empty lot and dies along the curb.

Minutes after he steps inside, the lock clicks open again.

He takes the first man out by the neck – dragging him in and throwing him down, and then it begins in earnest, knee to groin and elbow to throat. A nose shatters under his fist; a heavy blow catches him in the jaw, in the ribs. Fingernails dig into his neck and then release, a skull cracking into furniture. His hand closes on a wrist reaching for a gun and breaks it like a rabbit’s neck. A suppressed bullet whines into the dark, a puff of drywall kicking up.

Max pulls one of their own guns on them before they do. He steps towards the open door, and hears his own voice saying hands on your head, don’t fucking move. They put their hands on their head obligingly. They slide their weapons across the cheap linoleum when he asks. And when he steps back to lean the back of his head into the door frame, heart hammering in his ears, there is a black car in the lot waiting for him.

A man steps out of it, smiling, with his hands up. Max watches him over the pistol sights.

“Mr. Zaitsev, is it?” the man says. Another security contractor? A middleman? Floods of silver information scrolling across his corneas paint his eyes uncannily bright. “Please don’t shoot. Mr. Solberg is very eager to meet you.”

Seconds drag by, with only the cicadas singing in the dust. He breathes out softly.

Eventually, he lowers the gun.

*


This was always the plan. He knows that much, even before the dingy suburbs peel away and the night goes from faded yellow to shining neon, and the silver-eyed man ushers him past the fountains of the Bellagio. There, in shirtsleeves, he looks about as baseline as anybody might - tall and broad with muscle, dark blonde hair shorn close to the skull. There is still blood on his clothes and under his fingernails when he takes the elevator up to the penthouse, alone.

The rooftop lounge looks over a terrace, a long, still pool glowing impossibly blue between the palm trees. Far below, Las Vegas is a monster -- meadows and silver ingots traded for neon teeth and ruby eyes, the streets scored into the desert floor and filled with heavy golden filigree. The bar is curved glass and polished marble; a bottle of champagne more expensive than the clothes on Max’s back sweats in a silver bucket of ice. But the booths are almost empty, and the lounge is eerily quiet. The bartender watches and says nothing. Security staff cling sullenly to the walls.

Only one of the tables is occupied.

"Mr. Solberg?"
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XANDER
 Posted: Aug 25 2016, 10:39 AM
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He sits at the table like a coiled serpent.

Serpent. The word is a hiss, two syllables slithering tail to mouth on their bellies over a metallic double-meaning: a reptile, or, a treacherous man. Treacherous: characterized by readiness to betray trust. From 14th century Anglo-French trecher, deceiver, and French tricheur, trickster. Solberg, serpent. If Solberg is even his real name. If he even has a real name anymore.

He looks small from a distance, sipping his champagne. In all the emptiness and lights and glass, he could flicker and disappear in a flash of light, in the time it takes for the lights to shine too bright off the bar, and there would be nothing. This would all be a dream, a too-retro introduction of a watered-down supervillain, with the jazz lounge music turned down too low to enjoy it properly. The sound of the pool water lapping at the edges is drowned out by the horns of taxi cabs.

If Max has had a gun drawn on him - and he has, that is why he is here - he knows the feeling of that staggeringly long moment when his would-be killer reaches for his gun. He knows how the seconds drag out to hours when the lethal bullet misses, only clipping his shoulder. It is like that, when Vincenzo Solberg turns his head and looks at Max.

*


Blood is leaking through his fingers, his hand clenched over a wound on his arm. His palms are dirty and his shoes are scuffed and his heart is pounding in his chest. Once, trapped in first class with a Hollywood psychotherapist, Solberg was lectured on how the body's reactions to stress and one's personal consciousness of it are entirely separate things. It may well be that Solberg's heart is often racing, and he does not notice. This time, it is throbbing against his ribs with such fever that every pulse brings a twinge of pain. Cognitively, he would describe himself more as 'annoyed' than 'afraid'.

His mouth runs on a track separate from his thoughts. He thinks, No one should have known, and says, "We're leaving from a different airport." The driver asks, "Where?" and Solberg says, "Hai Phong to Wuhan to Los Angeles." He peels the rubbery prosthetics from his face with his free hand. He thinks, There's a rat.

Serpents swallow rats whole.

*


Solberg stands. He is tall and lean with auburn hair slicked back from the center. His eyes are the color of healthy, waxy Kapok leaves just before a logging company comes to cut down the rainforest. He has the perfect posture and easy smile of a hologram.

"You are Maksim Zhaitsev?" There is only a faint scar on his left arm from the injury five months ago. The wound in his mind never closed. It oozes with his infection.

He extends his hand, his palm up in welcome, then gestures to the chair across from him. "Please, sit."

--------------------
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bird
 Posted: Sep 29 2016, 11:38 PM
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Max isn't sure what he expects. It isn't this. Business as usual is old senile money or corporate stooges, the kind of work that never looked for more than another dumb vaguely ex-military tough, the kind he is overqualified for, the kind that would never seek him out this personally. It is the first time that he hesitates this evening. Next to Solberg he is taller, broader, younger, meaner; his wounds are fresher. Long before this slow, trailing moment in the bar, watching each other, the fundamental wrongness of it all collects like blood beneath the skin.

But he takes Solberg's hand and shakes it curtly, settling into the seat offered to him. Below, the Vegas lights swim like a daydream. Holographic billboards the height of buildings smile and turn on loop.

"I could have killed them," he says; flatly, clarifying, "Your men." He isn't bragging. He isn't even surprised, not really; it's one way to vet a candidate, anyway, although the plan had likely been less slapdash before it was set into motion. The questions are in subtext and the dried blood on his knuckles, the dull ache of a rib or two for the autosurgeon to fix.

Doesn't it bother you?

What for?
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XANDER
 Posted: Sep 30 2016, 12:07 PM
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"You could have," Solberg says. "But you didn't." He does not sound particularly interested in the possibility of it, or its consequences. He is one of those strange people who has succeeded in reducing human lives to chips on a board, or game pieces, or credits and debits. Max says, I could have killed them, and perhaps he thinks of the blood, and the lost time, and the hurt families. Solberg thinks of life insurance payouts and the irritation of the hiring process. He knows his men the way a child memorizes stats on baseball cards. Emil: batting average 0.309, likes sardines, has twin eight-year-old daughters. Carlo: runs batted in - 73, most likely to cry under stress, spills wine on himself. It is knowing without knowing, rote memorization without love.

"You don't seem like the talking type," he goes on congenially, "so I'll get straight to the point. I'd like to hire you." Solberg looks over his shoulder and gestures at the bartender, who pops the cap off the champagne bottle. Either acceptance of Solberg's offer is presumed, or he does not care enough to wait for Max to accept.

When the billboards flash and change colors, sometimes the light reaches far enough to cast eerie light on Solberg's face. He smiles the way people ride bikes with their hands in the air.
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bird
 Posted: Oct 23 2016, 03:14 AM
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Would he be in this room if he had killed them? Would it matter? It's not as though Max can afford his better instincts, which want nothing to do with Vegas or anything in it even as they look over the room and tally up weapons and exits and odds. But the champagne comes to the table in tall flutes, and the neon ghosts across Solberg's face like something almost living, and it is much too late for any of that. Everything in the lounge is too slick and too still, as though waiting for him to exhale.

"Alright," he says. "I'm listening." This doesn't matter either. Corpses with penthouse suites do their business in broad daylight, with delegates and contractor firms and security checks -- making Solberg mob, maybe, or something worse entirely.

Max doesn't touch his drink. "What do you need me to do?"
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XANDER
 Posted: Oct 24 2016, 05:27 PM
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Before technology was the great Satan of the world, people like Solberg were accused of being sorcerers, wizards, and werewolves. The inhumanity of them - their stillness, their watchfulness, the strangled nature of their hearts, like a bird throttled in a golden cage - has set others on edge for centuries. He sips his champagne and smiles brightly when Max asks what he's supposed to do, because that's basically a 'yes', and a 'yes' is all he is after. It is a bright, shimmering 'yes' to Solberg, a 'yes' that he hopes will extend his life, which he fears could be cut short.

(What's 'short' these days? Does Solberg plan to live forever?)

"Oh," he says, waving one hand, "Nothing exciting, right now. Just a little..." How does he say this? "...watching? Security." Solberg traffics in darkness because he is darkness, a man of wigs and facial prosthetics and manufactured accents and fake resumes and lies, lies and lies and lies, doing whatever is necessary to hustle up valuable corporate secrets. He is more easily forgotten at night, when people are high or drunk or tired or busy with dirty deeds of their own.

"Simple things for right now. I'm between jobs." But not between money.
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bird
 Posted: Jul 21 2017, 10:11 PM
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What Max knows about Solberg -- what he can guess at, between all the secrecy and the glitz and the champagne sweating in between them -- is nothing so fantastical. No evil sorcerers or monsters haunt his nightmares, and the slick neon unreality of Vegas itself feels like someone else's daydream. For him, Solberg instead belongs to a familiar, if more mundane species of creature: the minor oligarchs and their would-be Western echoes, the self-styled apparatchiki, the sly-mouthed FSB men wandering the military bases every now and then. He has stood in their shadows long enough to know that they pay well, that they cannot be trusted, and that he should choose his next words very carefully.

"Security," Max echoes. His eyes remain still, his face and voice studiously impassive, but some trick of the light or some edge of his accent must betray him then. because it sounds as much like of course as it does bullshit.

(There is no impulse to say, 49th Guards Army, mechanized infantry, 5th spetzgruppa, or don't you know what I am?, because, of course, this is not new information for either of them.)

He drinks some of the champagne. It is as light and insubstantial as seafoam.

"Fine, then. And what happens after that?"
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